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Wood, Shell and Stone  -  Stuart Dowsey

Go Boards

It is the dream of every go player to possess his own traditional go board with legs and play with shell and slate stones in beautiful turned wooden bowls. This series of articles serves as an introduction to fine go equipment although it is admitedly no substitute for the real thing.

Go boards are judged on the wood type, appearance and consistency. The work that goes into them includes the cutting and shaping, lining of the playing surface and carving of the legs.

The best wood is considered to be that of the Kaya trees followed by Icho, Taiwan Hinoki, Katsura, Alaskan Spruce and Agachis. The bulk of go boards available in England are made of the last two woods. Agachis, used mainly for folding boards, is a medium heavy slightly oily wood from Indonesia while Alaskan Spruce which has been dubbed 'Shinkaya' (New Kaya) is an excellent cheaper wood for making thick go boards with legs.

Kaya is golden-yellow in colour, has a straight regular grain and a pleasant smell although this fades with age. Its greates appeal lies in the texture of the wood which after aging is strong yet resilient and responsive to the click of stones. The Kaya tree grows widely in the Far East and in Japan from Central Honshu southwards to Shikoku and Kyushu. The best areas are in Kyushu with Shikoku next. The best trees are found 20 kms up into the mountains from Miyazaki City in Kyushu at Ayamachi in Higashimoro. They grow up to a height of about 20 metres. Trees for making go boards should be at least 500 years old and about 1.2 metres in diameter. Really old trees like this are almost all gone but there are plentiful supplies of younger trees. The difference in the wood varies from area to area. Kaya from north of Tokyo is much paler and lighter in weight and somehow the overall effect is not quite as good. However, boards from Shikoku and Shizuoka Prefecture are making an increased appearance.

The trees are felled between November and February when the sap is at its lowest ebb. Trees cut from National Forests are auctioned off to the go board makers and have been known to fetch nearly 10 million yen (£20,000). They are then cut into blocks and put into warehouses for aging. This process used to take 10 years but 6 or 7 years is more usual. At the end of this period, split or diseased boards are weeded out and you are left with a very tough piece of wood highly resistant to water. In fact, two of the other major uses of kaya are in boat building and bath tubs.

The Kaya trunk has a wide band of featureless wood just under the bark. If the tree is too small, this band will become part of the go board and affect the appearance. When the tree is large enough for the entire board to be cut from the grain along the radius of the trunk then this is called 'Masame' (True Grain) while smaller trees only produce boards cut from either half of the trunk which are then termed 'Itame' (Flat Grain). The first illustration shows how the four Masame cuts are obtained.

Masame Boards

The best is Tenchimasa, so called because the grain runs straight from heaven (Ten) to earth (Chi). In a perfect board, the grain lines on top and bottom are virtually identical and either can be used as the board surface. Next in quality is Tenmasa. The other two cuts, Shihomasa and Oimasa, both have spreading grain with uneven spacing and these forms of cutting have almost completely disappeared.

Itame Boards

The second drawing shows Itame boards. The most popular of these is the Ki Omote Omote (Facing Surface) in which the outer part of the trunk forms the playing surface. The other is Ki Ura Omote (Reverse Surface).

Dimensions were standardised at the end of the Tokugawa Era. Nowadays a small margin is added to these measurements giving the length as 1 shaku 5 sun (45.45 cms) and the width as 1 shaku 4 sun (42.42 cms). Thickness of the board varies from 3 sun (about 9 cms) to 8 sun (about 24 cms) excluding the legs which measure 3 sun 8 fun (about 11 cms). The standard thickness is 5 or 6 sun which gives a comfortable height for players to kneel or to sit cross-legged while playing.

The 19x19 grid is put on last of all by brush, spatula or sword. The brush used is made from mouse whiskers and the paint is a heavy duty black lacquer. The spatula or sword technique is most dramatic. The edge of the instrument is dipped in the black paint and then rocked across the board surface to leave a perfect even line. Handicap points are dabbed in by brush later. Nowadays many grids are put on by the silk screen method.

The traditional shape of the legs is modelled on the seed of the Kuchinashi, a persimmon plant, though the Kuchinashi seed has only 6 sides while go boards have 8. Top quality boards will have hand-carved legs while the cheapest variety are turned on a machine. The Kuchinashi contains an interesting pun in which 'Kuchi' meaning 'mouth' and 'Nashi' meaning 'nothing' tells both players and onlookers the correct approach to the game.

Finally, the underside of the board has a curious indented pyramid called the 'Heso' (Belly-button). Legend has it that this was used by irate samuri to catch the blood after the beheading of annoying bystanders. The truth is slightly less gory. The Heso allows the go baord to expand and contract without splitting during changes of temperature or humidity. In addition, it helps to produce that clear distinctive note when a stone hits the board.

Top quality Kaya go boards understandably cost quite a healthy sum. Few are less than 1 million yen (£2,000). The most expensive ever made was used for the first game of the 1st Kisei Title Match and cost 10 million yen (£20,000). Fortunately, Shinkaya gives a satisfactory alternative and British players can enjoy the traditional beauty of a Japanese hand-made board for less than £200.

from the British Go Journal - No.50 (November 1980)

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revised 5 July 2013
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