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Tokyo 2018: pipes show and incredible dreams

30 novembre 2018 | in: no category


When you eventually land at Narita airport, you realise that, despite all the information you collected before your departure, nothing could prepare you to what you are going to find yourself facing: the alien Japanese world reveals itself for the first time to your eyes, and inside you, western virgin, a sudden feeling of inadequacy arises. And now? – you ask yourself – how can I…?

In a smoking area just outside the airport, the Sauro pipe Company  (my wife and I) was trying to elaborate this unexpected emotional state, when a woman with almond shaped eyes came closer and said: Excuse me, I couldn’t help hearing you. Are you Italian? – Yes – was our surprised answer – And where are you from? – she insisted –From Palermo, in the south of Italy – I answered  – I live right there in Palermo  – concluded she with a smile. Yoshie Yamazaki teaches at the Italian-Japanese Association in Palermo and, thanks to her directions, getting to the hotel was a kids’ game.

This is how we solved our first impact with alien Japan, with an unbelievable stroke of luck. Or, if you wish, a good omen sign.

And actually, the few days at our disposal go by really nicely.

We alternate long rides on the subway looking for places to visit, to lovely walks with our pipemakers friends through the streets of Asakusa, the district where the show is going to take place.

3 cretini

On a morning, invited by Mr. Tsuge, we visit his factory, a milestone in Japanese pipes. He welcomes us in impeccable traditional clothes to leave us then at Hiro, Yo and Kohji’s kind and caring attentions , who will turn out to be perfect hosts.

The show, created by Mr. Tsuge  during the Japanese stage of the XIV° Slow Smoking World Championship, is attended by a small group of established masters, new talents and sellers of evident quality. A hug here, a hand shake there, sometimes just a nod, according to the closeness level that has been reached over the years, after having met each other around the world, conscious, maybe a little proud too, to belong to a restricted entourage that is still keeping alive such a noble and ancient object: the pipe. It doesn’t matter where we are from, we have all the same passion, a piece of wood with two holes, as I often say when I want to be ironic about our category.

The two days of the show are going to be a chance to know better Steffen Mueller and Sabina Santos, to have a word with my unaware, inspiring muse, Manduela, to meet, at last, personally Master Tokutomi. What a pleasure, then, meeting again my old friends Gabriele dal Fiume, Claudio Albieri and an unexpected Karin Romeo.

During the long and sometimes a little boring hours of the show, something bizarre luckily happens every now and then. As on that afternoon when an elderly Japanese man was able to slip away his wife’s watchful gaze and, in just a few seconds, bought a pipe through gestures and unarticulated words, begging  the seller with his eyes to hurry it up.

When he finally put the pipe into his pocket without his wife sensing anything, I was very relieved for him. I hope he enjoys that pipe.



When the show was over, Mr. Tsuge gave us the opportunity to take part in a tour on Mount Fuji. It was an immersion into the dreamlike dimension of Japan: the visit to an ancient village and a herb garden, the sight of the snow-clad volcano top, the purification within the warm waters of Fuji Lake Hotel, a ritual dinner in traditional costumes.

The oneiric dimension of Japan is persisting  inside me even after my return to Italy, giving me dreams I want to tell you, because it’s a shame to withhold such things.

Well, I just happened to dream about Steffen who was wearing two juicy tonkatsu  instead of his five-finger shoes. And then about Gabriele, Claudio and me walking through Asakusa dressed as Samurai, our katana ready to be drawn while we are waiting for the Danish Clan that, led by Kurt and Anne Julie in Viking costumes, want to cut off our heads. Manduela will prevent this epic fight: she will stand between the two factions, talking about universal love. Struck to the heart, all of us will  hug, crying and drinking sake.

But the funniest scene in my dreams was with Lev and Alexey, their inevitable pipes in mouth, talking lively with Dostoevskij, Puskin and Gogol in a tiny coffee-bar of Asakusa. I will never know what they were talking about, in my dream those five are holding talks in Russian, but the mere sight of such a gathering, although just in a dream, is a joy to sore eyes.

Who interrupts the lively discussion among the five is Antoine that, with his natural elegance, asks if the gentlemen would have something to drink. Vodka!  – Mr. Dostoevskij proclaims with no hesitation The other four men approve by nodding strongly, although Antoine is trying to convince them that champagne would be more appropriate to the occasion. In fact, beyond them, Sabina is celebrating the end of her stress-caused cold together with Gotoh and Lee. The three of them are nibbling at some green tea pastries and talking about women’s future in the pipes world. Maybe this is why Karen appears to me: she’s taking pictures of some Italians that are singing “Volare”, right in the middle of the big Shibuya crossroad, while Francesca, indifferent to the chaos around her, only has eyes for a huge dish of tempura. She can’t handle this – I say to her husband. That’s just the appetizer  – he answers.

Mr. Tsuge breaks in to put an end to my oneiric nights cicle: Usual Westerners!  – he screams – the show has already begun and nobody is at his place yet!

Escorted by Hiro, Yo and Kohji, our eyes on the ground in shame, we are all led to the hotel and placed at the tables where, however, there aren’t our pipes but emotions in the shape of coloured marbles…

Now, with a little bit of nostalgia, my dreams have got back to being as always had been, and I’m already thinking of new pipes, new journeys and other  encounters, but one thing is certain: I am going to be forever curious to know what were those fantastic five Russians talking about!

3 cretini a cena

BRIAR LOG: unusual in depth-analysis

6 ottobre 2018 | in: pipe making

fiori di erica

At least once in their lives, pipemakers and pipe smokers have been looking up information in the net about Erica arborea (tree heath). Who has never done it, believe they know enough about it, either due to their long activity in the area, or because they have been sawyers for generations. However, the myriads of pictures, videos and available articles aren’t thorough if not, sometimes, even misleading.

I believe it’s time to add some clarifications to what is already in the net, and to do this I need to dust off my degree in Agricultural Sciences, carefully avoiding the usual data on geographic distribution of the species, botanical characteristics or log preparation. Rather, I’m going to examine some aspects that, to my opinion, may shed a light on some misunderstandings. Let’s see them:

Is heather really male or female?

Is the log part of the stem or of the root?

What purpose has the log to the plant?

Why is it so rare to find flawless briar?

 About the first point, in the world of pipes it is commonly spoken about male and female heath. Confusion arises when someone curious decides to ask a considered “expert” what the difference between the two of them is and if both are used to make pipes.

First of all, it is better to clarify that Erica Arboreahasn’t got a sexual differentiation: its flowers are hermaphroditic, because they have both female and male reproductive organs in the same plant.

fiori di erica

However, the popular belief to consider some plants as “male” or “female” is rather widespread and often, as in this case, wrong. It is based on the need to distinguish the best plants from the worst ones, for utilitarian purpose only and within the same species, with no real reference to their actual sexual identity.

Now, as the popular believes are suggested by the different regions culture and by the oral transmission of knowledge, it comes out that a different interpretation of the male and female heather concept will correspond to each territory, and which of the two should be better for pipes production.  The very few scientific studies on heather mentioning the “male” and “female” distinction are based on the regional definitions. Let’s see, here below, the two most illustrious examples.

From Raffaele Cormio’s monograph, published in 1943 by the magazine L’ ingegnere” .

(…) Erica arborea L. is commonly referred to also as male broom, to distinguish it from Erica scoparia L., called female broom. This definition shall not be taken in absolute terms, since either of them are species with hermaphroditic flowers. The male and female definition has been adopted, very likely, to indicate the different log quality provided by the two species; the bigger, more compact and coloured one provided by the male, is actually the only one used to make pipes, while the smaller one of the female plant, being a more modest-sized bush ( 1 meter at the most), isn’t accepted for that use (…)

From Daniel Alexandrian’s monograph, published in 1982 in the magazine “Forêt méditerranéenne”.

(…) In exceptional cases, the log doesn’t show up or grows badly. Those workers harvesting the logs distinguish them between “male” and “female” ones. This difference in shape corresponds with different sources or technical qualities, since only the “female” type is interesting. (The log harvesters) are also able to appreciate “in place” the value of the log before its removal. The subjective discrimination criteria, acquired through observation, might be confirmed and specified through a field-based study. They have made possible to elaborate a standard profile of a workable and a not useable heather. Several ecologic factors influence the growth of the heather logs. The most important are: pH, nature of humus, consistence and depth of the soil, elevation and exposure of the place (atmospheric conditions) (…)

Here is, according to Alexandrien, how we can graphically represent the difference between “male” and “female”:

immagine maschio femmina

On the other hand, talking with some still working Italian sawyers, more thesis still come out. Here are just some of the most recurring:

The male has pointing down leaves, the female pointing up. The best log is the female’s;

The male has got just one stem, the female many more. The best stem grows from the male;

The female doesn’t produce a log, the male does;

The male is high, the female is short and bushy. The best log is produced by the male;

And so on…

Who’s right and who’s wrong?

Once it is established that there is no botanical sexual differentiation, I would say everyone, because each region has found its way to distinguish the plant with a good log from that one without or with a bad one.


But is the log part of the stem or of the root? And what is its function to the plant?

The “log”, such a particular irregular wrinkly ball, even lying under the soil, is part of the stemand not of the roots. Considered by some as a tumorous expression of the plant to fungus and insects assaults, it is actually a form of adaptation and specialization of the plant to the lands of its growth, that are rich in complex molecules, minerals as silicon and iron, but poor in nutrients, and it has the specific function to work as a filter (exactly like a kidney), letting in only what the plant can use for its nutrition.

To better understand the concept, let’s imagine we could follow the path of the elements of the soil from the roots to the foliage:

The elements get in contact with the threadlike roots spreading from the log;

Some microscopic fungus (ascomycetes)live tangled up as a ball of yarn within the root cells. They are able to dismantle the complex molecules in the soil, transferring the useful components, through the log, to the plant;

In the meanwhile, most of the silicon and iron are kept by the log.

As we know, it is actually the presence of such a high mineral content that gives the log its remarkable resistance to heat, a characteristic which makes it the top-notch material to realise smoking pipes.

What are exactly the flame patterns and bird’s eyes?

The log has a spherical structure from whose centre, essentially the stem base, countless tubules spread radially. These are the vessels that allow the translocation of the nutrients from the roots to the stem. Therefore, when we cut the log transversely to the tubules, we are going to notice a large quantity of small circles, the so called “bird’s eye”, that are nothing but the visible section of the tubules. If we cut longitudinally to the tubules, instead, we are going to notice their own axial section, the so called “flames”.

fiamme e occhi english

But why is it so difficult to find flawless rough drafts of briar?

Any sawyer will tell you that the waste percentage is huge and it can vary for different reasons. Anyway, a plausible waste average stands around 70%. That means that out of 100 Kg of log an average 30 Kg of blocks can be saved, ready to be boiled.

Why such enormous quantity of waste?

The log grows in the soil expanding from its centre towards the outside, just like a balloon when blown up.


The green marked area in the picture indicates the space occupied by the so called “cambium” (embryonal tissue from which starts the increase in diameter of the stem), where the growth to the outside begins.

The picture shows the situation after several decades from the sprouting of the plant. Initially, when the seed started to produce the plant, the change was along the centre of what would become a log. As the wood expanded in the three dimensions, turning into a spherical shape, the old wood remained there where it had formed, while the new one went on spreading towards the outside (this picture, in particular, shows a big log, deeply damaged in its core and with an intense reddish colour, caused maybe by a strong presence of iron in the soil). During its really very slow growth, the log embeds pebbles, dirt and ashes from old fires, that eventually build up the so called blemishes (to those who don’t know: the Erica arborea is fire resistant, and after a fire it reproduces through root suckers).

In the example initially given, at the end, out of the 30 Kg (average) of the briar saved from waste, 95% will show more or less severe blemishes that are going to determine the choosing of shape and finishing by the pipemaker. The latter knows perfectly what it means to spend long hours working on a promising piece or briar that, at the time of completing the shape, reveals one or more fatal defects, such as cracks or granules of various origins.

So, blessed he, who catches the remaining 5%, because his luck has allowed him to hold in his hands a little jewel on which, anyway, he has had to invest pretty much money.


I hope this in depth-analysis has been of help.

All the pictures have been taken from the net and, when necessary, modified by me. In case I have unwittingly violated copyrighted images, please contact me.

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Schermata 2016-05-22 alle 11.56.02


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Foto 1 articolo Tom

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Onda articolo sul logo

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foto articolo meditazione

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