Roofing Tiles

Protecting Himeji Castle, World Heritage site

Himeji City, the land of Kuroda Kanbee, an outstanding 16th-century samurai strategist who never lost a battle in the age of warring provincial lords, boasts Himeji Castle―Japan’s first UNESCO-designated World Heritage site as well as one of Japan’s national treasures―which is a popular destination for tourists and history lovers from overseas and Japan. In addition to this beautiful internationally known castle nicknamed the White Heron Castle, it is worth remembering that the region of Himeji and its adjacent Seiban is a land of a variety of indigenous industries that have been cherished and nursed by history and tradition and that have engaged in day-and-night endeavors to capture the hearts and needs of a fast-changing world. Among these industries is the manufacture of ibushikawara or smoked roofing tiles. These beautiful tiles with their elegant, subdued silver brilliance today protect Himeji Castle from rain and storm water with their high waterproof performance as well as pressure resistance. In recent years, they have been used for interior decoration articles, too.

Roots of Himeji’s roofing tiles

The mission of Kobayashi Mataemon of Himeji was to deliver roofing tiles for Himeji Castle. A tile artisan hired by the Himeji Domain government, he repeatedly journeyed throughout the domain to search for the best clay. One day at last, he found it in Kanzaki’s Funatsu area (the present Funatsucho, Himeji City). He moved his residence to this remote village and set up a kiln for roofing tiles. This was in the year 1805. Soon, horse-drawn buggies began to serve between the castle town and Funatsu. Until around the 1930s, the many roofing tile factories that stood around the Funatsu area made famous the name of high-quality Kanzaki roofing tiles.

Skills in the making of these roofing tiles have been passed on to today. Though the number of factories has fallen, they steadily manufacture roofing tiles for castles and temples, including decorative ones for the ridge of the roofs, and those for ordinary houses. In 1956, when a large-scale, eight-year project to repair Himeji Castle was carried out, a huge number of Kanzaki roofing tiles were employed since recognition was given to their superior resistance to water, pressure, and cold temperatures.

From rain and wind damage, Kanzaki tiles are now protecting the national treasure Himeji Castle, which was designated as a World Heritage site in December 1993. The castle now uses a total of about 75,000 roofing tiles for its daitenshu or main keep. Atop the castle tower is a pair of tile-made shachihoko, an imaginary ocean fish with the head of a tiger and thorns on the back, which is as tall as some 1.8 meters (6 feet). It is decorated as the guard to protect the castle from fire.

Japan’s oldest building with roofing tiles

It is yet to be answered who invented roofing tiles and when. However, a theory goes that it was in the suburbs of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, China that the world’s oldest roofing tile of some 2,800 years ago was excavated. It was a thin, flat tile. To Japan, roofing tiles were brought in 588 from the Baekje Kingdom of the Korean Peninsula. So it is written in the 30-volume Chronicles of Japan, Japan’s oldest history book compiled in 720. Four “tile scholars” dispatched from the kingdom were believed to have taught Japanese artisans how to make clay roofing tiles. The first building in Japan to employ roofing tiles was Asuka Temple in Nara that was completed in 596. The grand temple was also Japan’s first full-fledged Buddhist temple built in accordance with the orthodox temple design on the peninsula in those days.

For many centuries, clay roofing tiles were used only for temples, shrines, and castles since they were very costly building materials. In the Edo era (1603-1867), the Tokugawa Shogunate often issued orders to ban luxury goods and encourage thrift, and people including rich merchants could not use them for their houses. However, the capital town of Edo (the present Tokyo) was repeatedly devastated by great fires, and, as people said fondly and sarcastically, “Fight and fires are Edo’s flowers.” Flames did not subside until they engulfed all houses, built of wood and paper, in many areas.

At last, the Tokugawa Shogunate changed its policy and promoted the use of clay roofing tiles that were known to be fire resistant. It even granted subsidies for their use. Invention of cheap, lightweight roofing tiles accelerated the trend to replace wooden tiles with clay tiles for the roofs of houses.

In the following Meiji era, a French businessman began to manufacture a new type of roofing tile in the port city of Yokohama. Alfred Gerard set up a tile factory and sold so-called Gerard tiles for Western-style houses. Although his factory was later closed, the empty lot was turned into a park, which is now the citizens’ favorite Motomachi Park. In the Taisho era (1912-1926), Spanish-style roofing tiles were imported to Japan. These French and Spanish roofing tiles came to be called Western-style tiles.

Subdued silver brilliance

On many roofs of temples, shrines, castles, and even ordinary houses in Japan, you can see tiles with a subdued silver brilliance. They are called ibushikawara or smoked roofing tiles. Their elegance is beautifully integrated into the Japanese landscape and surrounding nature. Some call them silver tiles or black tiles. The uniqueness of the color tone arises from the carbon film coating the tile surface in the attachment process. Moreover, carbon permeates all of the clay body. Even if you hack away at it with a hammer, you will find its center core turned to a silver color.

The useful life of smoked roofing tiles depends on the climate of the area where they are used. Yet it is generally said to be more than 50 years, so long as periodic checks are made. It is one of many reasons that administrators of important buildings positively adopt them for their roofs. Smoked tiles are today used for interior ornaments and gardening materials, too.

Skills in making smoked tiles are said to have been brought into Japan in the 16th century under Oda Nobunaga, a samurai hero who embarked on the grand enterprise of unifying Japan. He invited a tile master artisan, born in China in the Ming Dynasty, to make roofing tiles for Azuchi Castle near Lake Biwa in the present Shiga Prefecture. This artisan Ikkan taught manufacturing skills to Japanese artisans. However, smoked tiles of those days did not have their present delicacy. Instead of subdued silver brilliance, you could see black tiles with various uneven shades as a result of the burning and smoking methods of the day.

The central production site of smoked tiles  today is Awaji Island in the same prefecture of Hyogo. Its output ranks first in Japan. The manufacture of Awaji roofing tiles is said to have started early in the Edo era when the lord of Himeji Castle ordered his third son to rule the island and construct his own castle there. The son invited a master artisan of smoked roofing tiles from Himeji for his castle. After its completion, the artisan’s disciples and apprentices stayed in the island to continue the production of Awaji roofing tiles.

By the by, people from overseas often wonder to see a monster’s fierce look on the roofing tiles of temples and even ordinary houses in the countryside. They are called onigawara or ogre tiles used as a charm against evil, preventing with his fierce look the intrusion of devils. Architecturally, onigawara serves to prevent rain leaks by covering key junctures of ordinary tiles.

Beyond roofs to the interior

In recent years, people are increasingly interested in things traditional and Japanese. Yet, demand for roofing tiles, indispensable for traditional Japanese houses, is declining.

After the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 that wreaked havoc in the Osaka, Kobe, and Awajishima Island regions, unfounded rumors circulated that the heaviness of clay roofing tiles caused collapse of houses and buildings. Due to this bias, demand for roofing tiles nosedived although ruination of houses and buildings is to be attributed more to fragile ground and structural problems of houses and buildings than the weight of the roofing tiles.

Through TV and radio broadcastings as well as pamphlets, the roofing tile industry made efforts to recover their image and emphasized that roofing tiles are safe building materials. It goes without saying that industry-wide cooperation was made to conduct a variety of scientific tests to produce earthquake-resistant tiles and develop new technologies to build safe roofs that would absorb a quake’s destructive shaking. Moreover, under development are lightweight tiles adopting fiber-reinforced plastics (FRP), “eco-tiles” with high reflectance against the urban heat island phenomenon, and “disaster reduction tiles” with high performance against strong winds and earthquakes.

Yet, in fact, the roofing tile industry has got caught in a headwind. A worldwide spiral in crude oil prices expanded the fuel costs of burning tiles. The issue of clay depletion arose as a result of massive clay use for generations. Most manufacturers were forced to raise the prices of their products. From a wider view, many new houses today do not require high-grade skills to arrange roofing tiles or build roofs. Construction of condominium apartments that do not require roofing tiles themselves is increasing. Demand for and output of roofing tiles are both weakening.

The roofing tile industry is addressing these challenges, though. They emphasize the tiles’ inherent merits of being unburnable, fire resistant, and heat resistant. Other merits include ability to control moisture and ventilation, resistance against solar heat, cold, rain and wind, etc.

Manufacturers are also seeking ways out by marketing new products. They are making most of the smoked tiles’ characteristics, by calling attention to their elegance as Japanese garden materials as well as interior ornaments such as stationery, single-flower and other vases, accessories, coasters, and so on. They hold experience courses for visitors to learn about tiles firsthand.

Meanwhile, the Himeji City government does not fail to support the industry’s initiatives. To make most of the merits of monozukuri or manufacturing, it sponsors monitoring tours to local industry sites. For instance, at a roofing tile factory in Funatsu, participants can enjoy the experience of making the imaginary animal shachihoko tiles under the guidance of artisans. Both the industry and city government believe that citizens and visitors will review and re-recognize the beauty and merits of Himeji’s tiles through these activities.