The Japanese Craftsman A Lesson in Traditional Wheel-Making Wheels Assembled Entirely from Wood Naturally Seasoned over Many Years Traditional Techniques Handed Down from the Asuka Period Continue to Live and Breathe in Gion Festival Hoko Floats

Based on an interview with Shigeo Takeda, President and CEO of wooden wheel manufacturer Takeda Building Contractor's Office

A look back through history shows evidence of wheel production and use from ancient times. In Japan, wooden wheel production techniques are said to have been developed during the Asuka Period (538-710) , and artisans who continue to use these techniques can still be found in Kyoto. Extraordinarily enough, the original wheel structure and production process remain virtually unchanged, allowing the techniques of old to live on in the wooden wheels of hoko and other traditional parade floats used in Japanese festivals. To learn more about these Asuka-period techniques and the art of producing wooden wheels, we visited the Takeda Building Contractor's Office in Kyoto's Fushimi Ward.

One of the Greatest Inventions of the Human Race, the Wheel First Appeared in Japan during the Asuka Period

The wheel is an object with a circular frame that is used to facilitate the transport of other objects. Wheels utilize the principle that rolling friction is much lower than sliding friction. Wheels not only allow vehicles to accelerate forward, but also make the basic functions of turning and stopping possible, and it can safely be said that without the invention of the wheel, the vehicles of today would never have come into existence.

The oldest wheels are believed to date back to the rollers, or round logs, of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization of 3,500 BC. The subsequent development of wheels joined by an axle, which allowed wheels to rotate, is considered one of the greatest inventions of the human race. Wheels later appeared in Europe and southwest Asia, and it has been established that wheeled vehicles existed in China during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) .

In Japan, a piece of a wooden wheel believed to date from the latter half of the Asuka Period (circa 650) was unearthed at an archaeological site in Sakurai City, Nara Prefecture in 2001. The wheel was made of Japanese evergreen oak, and partial signs of wear indicate that it had been in actual use. The construction of the wheel section provides evidence that wheel production techniques had in fact been developed in Japan by the Asuka Period.

Shigeo Takeda, President of the Takeda Building Contractor's Office, told us that when he heard of the discovery of the wheel fragment, he wasted no time in travelling to the archaeological site to request that he be allowed to attempt a reconstruction of the ancient wheel At the time, Mr. Takeda was engaged in the production of wooden wheels, a business that had been started by his father. "The unearthed section of wheel consisted of an outer portion of the wheel called ōba (the felloe) , along with a spoke section called ya," remembers Mr. Takeda. "Since the construction was almost identical to the wheels that we were producing, I was sure that we would be able to reproduce it." Although Mr. Takeda's wish ultimately remained unfulfilled, this episode demonstrates the depths of his passion towards wheel making.

25 Years of Constructing the Wheels of Gion Festival Hoko Floats, among the Largest Wheels Still in Use in Japan Today

In Kyoto, traditional methods continue to be used in the production of the wooden wheels of Gion Festival hoko floats. These giant wheels, which support hoko parade floats weighing 15 tons, have a diameter of 2 meters and are among the largest wheels still in actual use in Japan today. Looking back on the history of the wheel in Japan, large numbers of wheels were made for the ox-drawn carriages used to transport members of the Heian-era nobility, as is depicted in picture scrolls of the period. These wooden wheels, which had no metal rim, were assembled entirely from wood, with no bolts, nails, or adhesives used. Wheels which do not have a metal rim are liable to wear down from use, and insufficient drying of the wood used to construct them may cause the wheel parts to come apart, making it necessary to retighten wheels or replace worn-out parts.

Takeda Building Contractor's move into wheel production was prompted by its restoration of a hoko parade float. Although wheel production requires techniques entirely different from those used to construct hoko floats, a suggestion that the corporation try its hand at wheel construction spurred the Takeda Building Contractor's Office to learn the necessary techniques, and it was this that marked the beginning of the company's 25-year history of wheel production.

Read more