Saturday, December 20, 2008

Waterwheel 水車

A couple of days before I left for a trip to the U.S., S-san invited me to come by to see her family's waterwheel and mill. I thought I might be too late, but she assured me they would be using the wheel into the first week of December.

I arrived at S-san's on a sunny Wednesday morning. She said she had just been on her way to grind some rice, so the timing was good. S-san's family owns the only waterwheel that remains in Otaki, though it appears that in the past many families operated their own wheels. Every year family's from all over the village bring rice to be ground into flour for making dango, manju and other treats.

After briefly showing me the contents of the wheel-house, S-san walked up above to open and close gates in order to divert water to the wheel. The sound of rushing water that had been constant since I arrived paused. A moment later it resumed. And, a moment after that, water began spewing from the mouth of a pipe situated next to the wheel. It took a few seconds, but the giant wheel finally lurched into motion and was soon spinning with ease. S-san greased the wheel's axel with a few hearty d0llops of oil from a can.

We moved into the wheel-house, which was now alive with noise and motion. Wooden gears spun, squeaking and jumping, as if they would bound from their interlocked positions. The whole thing resembled some fantastic flying machine one might encounter in a novel or movie. I took the following video.

S-san explained to me the art of making rice flour. I call it an art because there's no formula for where to position the funnel into which rice is poured so that it will fall at the right pace to create fine, but not too fine, a flour. There's no manual. It all must be done using one's senses, the way a painter knows if the sky she is painting is the right shade of blue. The same is true, remarked S-san, of the amount of water allowed to power the wheel--too much and the wheel will spin too fast, grind the rice too hard, too little and it won't be fast enough.

The wheel-house itself is only about five feet by five feet and is made entirely of wood. The roof is made of wooden planks that overlap one another--a traditional technique in the Kiso Valley. There are only a few of these roofs left in Otaki. The boards are made by cutting a rounded log into quarter sections, so that it looks like slices of pie. Planks are then cut away from the quartered sections, lengthwise, against the grain of the tree rings. By flipping and rotating the planks a roof can be renewed four times before having to be replaced entirely.

Within the wheel-house are a series of wooden cogs that make up three different stations that can be used by reworking the structure. The first is a grinding station for making rice and other types of flour. The second is a pounding station where a large wooden pestle is pounded into a stone mortar. The third station is also used for grinding, but with fewer cogs, which means it grinds faster therefore creating coarser material. The first griding station consists of two stones that sit within a wooden container above a small box for collecting the flour. A wooden cog sits on top of the stones. Rice is dropped onto the cog from a funnel suspended above it. A small straw broom sweeps the grains of rice from the cog into a hole leading to the spinning stones.

S-san explained to me that this waterwheel has been in her family since the Meiji Period--around the end of the 19th century. She learned from her father and grandfather how to use the wheel. "They used to take it apart and clean everything, but I really can't do that," lamented S-san. Looking at the device one can see why; S-san emphatically stated that moving the grinding stones requires the strength of at least two people.

I got a sense that S-san understands that the use of waterwheels is a dying art in Japan. "Every year I think that perhaps I won't use it," sighed S-san, "but my son said he wanted the manju made with the wheel ground rice flour. He said it tastes better. It does taste better!" Here, I realize, is the heart and future of Otaki--and perhaps other rural areas: the recognition of values aside from convenience, speed, and efficiency. In modern society, a focus on finishing tasks as quickly as possible has collapsed the social spaces where community, art, and tradition are cultivated and cared for. There IS value in slowing down; in living life to the clip-clopping pace of an old rickety waterwheel.


Kevin said...

Great post! Its too bad that she is considering stopping it each year, I would pay for her rice grinding services.

We searched all over for someone that would grind the rice we grew, but most places only take huge quantities - more than what we need for baking in the year. We managed to find only one place that would take small amounts, but still, with the cost of sending them our rice and having it sent back, it is almost the same as buying the flour from the supermarket. And I'm sure they were not using the water wheel and stone.

It would be worth it for us to make a trip to Otaki with a couple bags of rice and watch the machine in action.

Taintus said...


We'd love to have you!



Martin J Frid said...

Wow, that is great engineering. So many questions pop up in my mind - why don't they promote this, and market a product that explains the manufacturing process to the consumers? Why is JA and MAFF or big brand supermarket chains not combing the country for ideas like this... Thanks for posting it!

Alex said...

Great post! Can we see a picture of the roof?

Taintus said...


Don't have photos of this particular roof, but do have some of others in the village. I'll put them up in the next day or so.



KenElwood said...

Great post !

Repurposing waterwheel technology in the country sounds like a novel idea.


Chris ( said...

Absolutely fascinating - I'd love to see this in action. Given that the whole community seems to use it I wonder why S-san doesn't corral some of them to help clean it, and maybe pass on a little of the art?