The Carpenter and the Angel

For a change of pace, I would like to share this charming folktale from Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan, of a sort traditionally told to small children.

We originally posted this little story about a year ago, but since those pesky pixies seem to have pulled it down, we are re-publishing it today for Japan’s Labor Thanksgiving Day holiday and because Tengo was such a great workman (or at least labor producer).

I have included photo extracts from the Kasuga Gongen Genki E (春日権現験記絵) scrolls painted in 1309 on silk using silver and gold paints, showing carpenters working on the Kasuga Temple jobsite.

My children and I enjoyed this story. Perhaps you and yours will too.

The Tale of Tengo and Tenjin

Once upon a time there was a very good carpenter. But he was sad because he lived alone, so he asked the prettiest girl in the village to be his bride.

She did not want to marry, but to put him off without hurting his feelings, she decided to charge him with an impossible task. 

“If you will build me a big house with 60 tatami mats in a single day, then I will marry you.” (60 tatami mats = approx 99 square meters = 1065 sqft based on the standard modern tatami mat) 

The carpenter was shocked by this demand, but because he wanted her for his bride, he boldly accepted the challenge saying: “I will build you this house in one day.” 

His voice rang with confidence as he said this, but he despaired in his heart knowing he could not build such a large and beautiful house in one day. He thought to himself  “ What shall I do, what shall I do?”

But never fear, because as you have probably guessed, our carpenter was no ordinary fellow to give up easily. Before long he came up with a plan.

He made 2,000 dolls out of straw and breathed on each while casting a magical spell transforming them all into human carpenters. 

The carpenter and his 2,000 man crew then went to work.

A cross-section of the Carpenter’s plan (dimensions are in Sun (pronounced soon) and meters). Notice the coved & coffered ceiling in the family room on the right.
Images from the “Kasuga Gongen Genki E,” completed in 1309
The Master Carpenter and his helper use a water trough as a water level for layout. He uses a vertical string of a fixed length with a plumb bob attached to check the high stringline’s height above the water’s surface to adjust the line to be approximately level.
A crew of 3 workmen excavate a hole and compact the soil at the intersection of two low stringlines installed by the Master Carpenter in preparation for placing a natural foundation stone, probably intended to support a main post. Notice the shovel: a one-piece wooden body with a joined “T” handle with a steel or iron cutting edge affixed. Bleeding-edge technology at the time.
The carpenter and his young helper in the drawing’s upper half use a sumitsubo (inkpot) to snap a straight line on a timber in preparation for splitting it into boards. At the lower right, the master carpenter uses his sumitsubo inkline as a plumbline to orient his steel square to vertical against the log’s end. At the same time, he directs his mellow-looking partner at the opposite end to make a matching vertical line using a steel square with a bamboo pen wet with ink from the reservoir of his classic split-tail sumitsubo. Notice how he has used an adze to keep the log from rolling away.
The carpenters in the upper right use chisels to split timbers, while the other workers use adzes to dimension and clean split boards. One appears to be of African persuasion. Notice the classic carpenter’s toolbox at the far right with a leaf-blade saw secured to the lid and a wooden mallet laying next to it on the ground
At the top of this image you can see two carpenters, one shaping the end of a round column and another sawing what appears to be a kumimono bracket with a leaf-shaped saw as he jabbers at his buddy a hundred miles an hour. In the center, more carpenters use spear planes to flatten and smooth boards and a round column after they were adzed. Notice the wood shavings curling from the curved blades, some being pushed and others pulled. Spear planes were used in Japan long before blade-in-block planes became common. The guy working on the board’s right hand end appears to have his thumb stuck in his eye. I hate it when that happens!
Carpenters erecting the building’s structure. No ginpoles, shoes, or tie-offs are in sight. Probably no hardhats either. And the scaffolding is a death trap! Tisk, tisk! What would OSHA say? The planks resting on the scaffold in this image (also visible in the first image and the image directly above) have two square holes cut in each end, perhaps for tying them down to the scaffold. On the other hand, a carpenter in the upper left-hand corner is using his leaf-shaped saw to cut one of these boards, so maybe they are construction lumber and the holes make it easier to hoist the boards by hand to higher elevations. The carpenter at the far right wearing blue and climbing a ladder has an adze at his waist, but I can’t figure out what tool he has in his right hand.
A diagonal view of the coved & coffered ceiling at the family room.
A corner view of the family room coved & coffered ceiling. Notice the coped joints. This work is typically performed by joiners, not carpenters.
Related image
The living room has an even more elegant coved & coffered ceiling with “kumimono” brackets.
The living room’s coved & coffered ceiling in hinoki wood with a carved “rainbow beam” in the foreground. Nice work!

With the assistance of his 2,000 helpers, the carpenter completed building his bride-to-be’s house before the sun went down that day,

Overjoyed, the carpenter flew to the pretty girl’s house to tell her of his success. “I have finished the house you asked for. Please marry me now!”

“Truly?” she asked. Upon inspecting the work she found a big, beautiful house with 60 tatami mats, just as she had asked. “I will marry you.” she said.

And thus the prettiest girl in the village became the carpenter’s bride.

The carpenter and his bride then moved into their happy new home.

Afterwards, the 2,000 carpenters scattered throughout Japan to build houses, temples and bridges and teach many other carpenters how to build beautiful things for many years.

After several happy years had passed, the bride said to her husband “I have been silent up to now, but the time has come to tell you the whole truth. I am not really a human being, but an angel named Tenjin. I came down to earth from the kingdom of heaven. But the time has now come for me to return to heaven.”

The carpenter replied: “Ah, well, now that you mention it, I’m not a human being either, but a carpenter god named Tengo. Let’s both return to heaven together.”

So Tengo and Tenjin rose high into heaven where they still live happily ever after.

The End

YMHOS

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8 thoughts on “The Carpenter and the Angel

    1. Brian, thanks for reading. You can tell it’s a fairytale because she keeps silent for many years about the fact that she’s an angel instead of lording it over him and complaining that she’s too good for a lowly carpenter. I think most people would bust in half. On the other hand, maybe that’s a sure sign she is an angel!

      Liked by 1 person

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