Since the black ships first arrived in Japan, foreigners have been fascinated with the elegance and sensuality of Japan’s bathing rituals in what was otherwise an austere country with ascetic practices. Nothing exemplifies this better than bathing in a hinoki-buro, a wooden bathtub made of Japanese cypress. The passion of Italian (and Japan-licensed) architect Iacopo Torrini for spreading the gospel about hinoki-buro and preserving the integrity of Japanese craftsmanship has coincided with a boom in the West for health-related products and in Japan for restoring traditional Japanese structures such as kominka and machiya. Below is a summary of our interview with Iacopo.
Soon after arriving in Japan in 1998, Iacopo’s first job with a leading Japanese architectural firm gave him the opportunity to work on the restoration of a historical temple in the Kansai area. While surveying the structure, they found that the sexy curves of the 100-year old tiled roof were hiding older rafters, suggesting that the original temple had been covered with a straw- thatched roof.
Iacopo was shocked when the project leader suggested restoring the original straw roofing. To an Italian, this was akin to destroying a medieval church built over a Roman period hut to restore the “original” structure. Yet this incident gave Iacopo insight into the psychology of Japanese architecture and its organic nature—the restoration of legacy structures keeps the importance of cultural preservation fresh in the mind and allow the craftsmen’s heritage and skills to be passed on.
A random inquiry from a New York lawyer put Iacopo on the path to becoming a zealous advocate of hinoki-buros and the Japanese bathing ritual. Since 2002, Iacopo has exported more than 300 customized hinoki bathtubs throughout the world through his company Bartok Design, and is increasing domestic sales in Japan as well, primarily to foreigners.
Hinoki-buros are wooden bathtubs that come in various sizes and shapes, with varying types of border edges and covers; but they are all made of Japanese cypress, an aromatic wood containing essential antibacterial oils. Japanese cypress is ideal building material because of its durability and flexibility and is the material of choice for constructing a home’s columns and foundations—its life and soul. Iacopo’s hinoki wood is sourced from the Kiso Valley in Nagano Prefecture, which has been preserved as a sustainable forest since the Edo era, and is now filled with 300-year old trees. The Kiso Valley supplies most of the hinoki wood used to completely rebuild 65 structures at Ise Jingu every 20 years.
Iacopo’s customized hinoki-buros are made by hand by skilled craftsmen, who have the chance to preserve their legacy for at least one more generation! The wood is selected piece by piece to balance the internal tensions once the tub has been filled with water. The chisel and the hand-plane are the main tools used by the craftsmen to create a perfectly square unit without sealants or caulking. Some say that a well-crafted hinoki-buro reflects many of Japan’s traditional values—sustainability, perfect balance, and simplicity combined with intricate details.
Japan is full of ryokan offering the hinoki-buro bathing experience. It is often considered the ultimate luxury. Soaking in warm water for 30-minutes or more every day is enhanced by bathing in a wooden tub. The essential oils and the scent combine to relax and rejuvenate. In fact, the hinoki wood oil is so highly therapeutic that it is a raw material frequently used in soaps, perfumes, and antiseptics.
Beyond hinoki-buros, Iacopo believes that he has found his life mission here in Japan—creating a better consciousness about the intrinsic value of Japan’s historic legacy structures and promoting the integrity and sustainability of Japanese craftsmanship. Both can be accomplished only by resisting the unfortunate tendency of tearing down beautiful old structures and replacing them with soulless modern structures. Iacopo warns that this is a race against time since the master craftsman is a dying breed. He hopes to reverse this by creating a market for restored historical structures, which would require a growing number of trained craftsmen.
In early 2016, Iacopo managed to relocate a condemned sukiya-zukuri house from Enoshima to Chiba and is now working to secure an endangered Osaka temple to a safe location in Holland!
For more information, please contact Iacopo at firstname.lastname@example.org.