Building a temple in Japan lures Baltimore carpenter

June 03, 1995|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

KOFU, Japan -- A month ago Carl Swensson finished restoring an expensive antique desk in his Baltimore shop, wrapped his old-fashioned Japanese carving tools in soft cloth and came to Kofu to join a group of carpenters building a temple the likes of which hasn't been seen for almost 600 years.

The plan is to build an edifice sufficiently elegant, sacred and enduring to house what is said to be a bone fragment of Buddha, brought to Japan a decade ago from Sri Lanka.

The structure has been under construction since shortly after the bone fragment arrived.

The temple is not large -- only about 30 feet wide and the same length, and a single story -- but will cost almost $4 million by the time it is completed in 1997. Mr. Swensson's task is to craft the temple's eight subtly intricate doors during the next two months.

For the Baltimore carpenter, the job is an opportunity to do what no foreigner has ever previously done, as well as a chance to gain a certain amount of fame. For his Japanese employer, Mr. Swensson provides a rare combination of benefits.

"Honestly, Carl is a better carpenter than most Japanese," said Tadanao Miyazaki, the master builder.

"Underlying my presence is economics," said Mr. Swensson, who has a dry, plain way of speaking. "I'm kind of like the cheap foreign help."

Mr. Swensson's life in rural Japan is a far cry from the opulent style of most American business people in Japan. As is the case of most foreign labor brought into Japan to work on Japanese terms, there is no fancy hotel, no CNN, no bed and only rarely an interpreter.

By night he sleeps on a futon thrown into the corner of a deteriorating Japanese-style house connected to the building site. By day, he hears the sumo wrestling matches over the radio. Meals are rice, fruit, rice, vegetables, rice, yogurt, then more rice.

Social life? "None," he said. "But that doesn't change much. I didn't have one when I left."

His time is spent on work, interspersed with bicycle trips around town and pauses to look at the local architecture and bonsai trees. Occasionally, he plays charades with the other builders, or, in Japanese style, they go out drinking.

It must be a lonely life, but Mr. Swensson has gone through it before. He had come here two years ago to work on the temple, after meeting a Japanese sculptor at the Maryland Institute of Art.

During that previous visit, he helped craft the temple's wooden ribs -- each a slightly different shape -- that support the curved roof. After a prolonged correspondence to smooth out problems incurred during the first visit, Mr. Swensson agreed to return.

But there have been unwelcome surprises.

A promised pay raise hasn't materialized, a plan to have his assistant come from Baltimore has been canceled and critical blueprints have not been made.

Indeed, only one person knows the whole design.

"The complete plan? It's in my head," said Mr. Miyazaki, the master builder.

Resolving problems isn't made easier by the fact Mr. Swensson doesn't speak Japanese and no one on the site speaks English.

"Miyazaki-san will start screaming at me in what he thinks is my language," said Mr. Swensson with a shudder, "and then get madder when I don't understand."

"He's nervous when he works," explained Mr. Miyazaki, who believes that bracing comments have a galvanizing affect. The pitfalls of less than clear understanding, he added, are outweighed by the benefits.

"Because he can't chat with others, Carl doesn't waste time," Mr. Miyazaki said.

Three other Americans confronted with similar problems left the project years ago. "Only Carl is sufficiently serious," said Tadio Yasui, the Buddhist priest behind the project.

"It's a big thing around here to be considered serious and professional," said Mr. Swensson. "Even the chicken barbecue guy is rated on his seriousness and professionalism."

Obstacles aside, work on the temple is slowly moving forward. Beneath the thicket of scaffolding, the interior structure has already taken shape -- a stone altar to house the rice-sized bone fragment of the Buddha, surrounded by two stone torches.

Large wooden columns support a jigsaw puzzle roof.

The structure has many aesthetic subtleties: Outside walls that appear perpendicular actually lean inward; seemingly straight roof beams are slightly curved. Edges that appear to be single, long planks are actually assemblies of many narrow strips, each intricately planed. None of the wooden columns has even a single knot exposed to view.

And workers wear white gloves during the work, to prevent any stain from skin oils.

Priests and builders are already visiting to see the new structure. Unlike Kyoto or Nara or a half-dozen other cities, Kofu has never been on Japan's religious map. But the temple may offer it new renown.

That, at least, is what Mr. Yasui, the temple's priest, hopes. "It will be a national treasure," he vows. "It will never be done again."

Mr. Swensson isn't much for religion and is not a Buddhist, but even he has been drawn into something that goes beyond the construction and the intelligible characteristics of design.

There was, for example, the ceremony last week to celebrate the completion of the highest point of the building:

"The priest was dressed up, each one of us bowed in front of the altar, we sprinkled incense on a flame," said Mr. Swensson. "I don't know what it meant. I just imitated what others did. It was sort of nice."

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