Wood with rare figuring was carefully carried down the mountain to be made into royal gifts.
A species of common ash from the Far East produces one of the world's most rare and treasured woods. Native to Manchuria, but transplanted to the mountainous regions of Japan centuries ago, this particular ash owes its fame to a uniquely figured grain.
Tamo, also called damo, shioji, and yachidama, looks like white ash. Very few trees, however, produce figured wood that resembles peanut shells laid side by side. Tamo trees develop this peanut figure when strong vines encircle their trunks. This girdling restricts the flow of nutrients. So the tree grows in spurts, and the grain shows it.
When all timber harvesting was done by hand, workers would find such a tree, and in felling it, sometimes discover only half the wood to be figured. Because they had to carry the wood down the mountain on their shoulders, they only took the figured wood.
For centuries, the peanut-figured wood was reserved for items made for Japanese royalty and shoguns, due to the difficulty in obtaining it. Japanese master craftsmen, seeking a more reliable supply of figured tamo, eventually learned to tie ropes around saplings. The controlled construction of the rope produced, over many years, the same figure in the tree. However, as these propagated tamo trees were harvested, the figured wood grew rarer and rarer.
Now, Japan relies heavily on the import of fine cabinetwoods. And peanut-figured tamo-tied, slow-grown, and cultivated-has become very rare. It's available only in Japan as extremely expensive, minutely-thin veneer used for the most exclusive projects.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson Photograph: Bob Calmer