Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Mud and straw walls: Putting the mud on the latice work

There are pockets of Japan where you can still see what it may have been like to live here as a common person 150 or 200 years ago, and those areas are pretty much anywhere you go. You don't have to go anywhere special, just walk around enough to find those places.

Some ways to you can tell you have found that kind of place is by narrow roads. Roads didn't have to be very wide for people to pass, or a horse, or a pull cart. Thatched roofs, or more likely thatched roofs covered with galvanized steel sheeting is another. My favorite old structures have been kura, or store houses.

Kura vary in size, but they all have very thick walls, which are white on the outside, with thick metal doors and windows. They are often adorned with carved plaster reliefs of storks, tortoises, or some other auspicious animals. And aside from the wooden frame, and steel doors, they are almost entirely mud and straw.

I always admired those structures and wanted one, but thought I would have to buy and old one. I never thought I would be building my own. It has been quite an adventure.

Yesterday we put up the mud on the bamboo lattice walls. The mud has been sitting in our back yard, with the rice straw gradually rotting and forming a fine fiber net that will hold the mud together for decades, and then when my kids or grandkids want to redo the walls, all they have to do is pull down the old mud, mix it with a little new mud and straw, and put it up again. 100% recyclable.

We started at about 9am, wading through the stinking mud to mix it up and adjust the consistency. The straw rots and smells like a swamp, which is really what it was. The bacteria comes from the straw, and is the same strain that helps turn soy beans into natto.

At around 10 we started applying the mud to the walls. Your loader loads a football sized glob onto your pallet, and you throw it into place and spread it out as evenly as possible with your trowel. Then you reach down for another glob that your loader serves up to you with a miniature pitchfork, especially designed for the purpose.

You keep that up, working your way down the wall, until you reach the earthen floor, and then move on to the next section. People reported various symptoms of overworked muscles, twitching biceps, shoulders that wouldn't raise anymore, hands that couldn't grip a trowel or pallet. The smell you get used to.

Traditionally you started applying mud from the inside, then wait a few days for the mud to dry a little, and then apply the outside wall. Our kura has relatively thick horizontal beams on the inside, so we used them as a shelf for the mud to sit on and started from the outside. We will wait for a few days and the apply mud for the inside.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable process, mostly because of the people who gathered to help us out. There were ten people in total who contributed their time and labor, which makes the building all the more dear. They all came for different reasons, mostly to help us or to find out how to make a mud-walled building.

That kind of communal work party is called a yui, 結い、in Japanese, and were common when people planted, harvested or built buildings. My guess is that in the future we'll have more of them, because the people who came to help all expressed a desire to have their own kura, with a couple of people saying they wanted a home or business build that way.

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