STROLLING HIS REMOTE, 5-acre Seabeck property, where it smells like fresh-cut Christmas every single day, Makoto Imai imparts his craft, and the practiced, intensive process behind it, one structure at a time. Though old, noble trees mark the perimeter in most directions, his home and its scattered outbuildings, technically, are not “in the woods.” Still, it’s hard to imagine anywhere more woodsy.

The Backstory: The true story finally comes out for a true master craftsman

Makoto (he’d prefer we call him Makoto) is a true master craftsman of traditional Japanese woodworking and construction. He uses no nails, no bolts, no screws — just precisely aligned, gorgeous joinery, and hand tools carrying 8,000 years of history that he brought from Japan. Over his 50-year career, Makoto has designed and built homes in Japan, in California, on the East Coast and in Washington — including a breathtaking guesthouse in Shoreline and a custom tea room on Bainbridge Island — along with stunning, singular pieces of furniture. In his work and in his life — they, too, are soundly joined — he’s been an influential instructor; a visionary designer; a quiet, prolific and constant creator; and, underlying everything, a devoted connoisseur and caretaker of wood.

Makoto Imai pounds together an 18-foot table in the garage of his Seabeck home, where he also stores handcrafted furniture pieces. Though he has built homes around the world, he says, “I really want to do furniture. I’m not young anymore. Now I’m 72 years old, plus there’s not much opportunity. Very, very few customers we can get for the Japanese home.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Makoto Imai pounds together an 18-foot table in the garage of his Seabeck home, where he also stores handcrafted furniture pieces. Though he has built homes around the world, he says, “I really want to do furniture. I’m not young anymore. Now I’m 72 years old, plus there’s not much opportunity. Very, very few customers we can get for the Japanese home.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Makoto lives here among the trees and the wood with his wife, Shoko, who makes her own impactful art and greeting cards out of torn paper. They have three children, all grown, but Makoto’s nurturing duties continue.

“If I have a weekend or a Sunday, I’m working and taking out lumber and organizing it,” Makoto says. “It never ends. From this process to making homes is like a parent raising kids from baby to adult.”

This process, of selecting, acquiring and fostering lumber to its prime, begins inside a cavernous 35-by-48-foot storage building stacked — as tall as a teenage tree — with old, drying wood that needs to grow even older and drier. Makoto calls this his “cedar inventory.” “This wood is aging many years — at least 10 years, and most over 10 years,” he says, tracing a gentle, masterful hand along beams he’s come to know personally over the decades. “This cedar, I’ve had 20 years. Twenty years! And this stuff I bought from California 30 to 40 years ago. I can feel when this should be ready; you can see cracks. You can see this color. That’s how I can tell.”

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Next door — we’re touring clockwise — more drying wood waits to reach perfection along one side of a giant building Makoto uses for “straightening out and squaring up” with a portable sawmill. “These are the round logs I use for natural, round beams,” he says. “I’ve had them for 20 years — no joke. Before conditioning, you have to write on each one how much it curved, how much it twisted. I stack them in this environment with no wind and no sun. Everything I can find out by drying it 15 or 20 years is very important.”

Makoto Imai walks through one of the wood-storage and -aging areas on his property in Seabeck. “I buy big logs. I need to buy almost-6-feet diameter or bigger, then big splits, from Canada,” he says. “We saw it before it gets to me, through a process in Canada.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Makoto Imai walks through one of the wood-storage and -aging areas on his property in Seabeck. “I buy big logs. I need to buy almost-6-feet diameter or bigger, then big splits, from Canada,” he says. “We saw it before it gets to me, through a process in Canada.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Across the flattened-grass driveway, the upper level of a two-story wooden building holds the precious, precise, well-worn tools of Makoto’s trade, all stamped with his name in Japanese. Downstairs, there is yet more wood (a massive maple slab; a hefty chunk of 1,200-year-old Douglas fir from the Olympic Mountains; material for doors, windows and furniture), and a surfacing machine “that does a 6-foot-wide-by-16-foot piece,” he says. “I can flatten it perfectly, for furniture.” And then, filling space after space, the wooden furniture itself: intricate cabinets; an in-progress garden bench shaped like a fan; a tea-ceremony table — so many pieces, so substantial, that they continue into the furniture-filled garage of Makoto’s home and, actually, much of its first floor.

Even the woods surrounding this supremely woodsy setting come into play. Traditional Japanese homes typically use white cedar, Alaskan yellow cedar and Western red cedar, Makoto says. “But in the United States, I want to use other wood because I build homes on the West Coast. Sometimes Western maple; sometimes yew wood; sometimes wild cherry, but only for certain, small things. Sometimes I’m collecting local rhododendron. My neighbor and I used to go walking; in the shade, I found a rhododendron branch. I want to use that. Anything I see is something special to me.”

This is a place of exquisite inspiration and creation, and this is the process of an extraordinary creator. Both place and process are personal, pure and completely authentic.

Makoto Imai uses a Ryoba Japanese saw to make cuts to wood in his workshop. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Makoto Imai uses a Ryoba Japanese saw to make cuts to wood in his workshop. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

“I have to do everything, because no one makes this that I can buy,” Makoto says. “In America, I have to, I want to, do everything. That’s why I do this system: so it’s honest. I want to control it myself — the quality. The customer should understand the process.”

THE PROCESS BEHIND the Shoreline guesthouse Makoto built took years from start to finish — and now, nearly two decades later, he still returns to perform maintenance on its weathering exterior wood. You don’t just abandon your kids once they’re on their own, you know.

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Situated on a serious 100-foot-high bluff overlooking sparkling Puget Sound, and sited amid Zen gardens and a languid pond on a gated 12-acre estate, the one-bedroom Japanese Sukiya Guesthouse was designed with Cardwell Architects “primarily as an entertaining space,” says the owner, who lived in Japan for 15 months in the 1980s. “We have dinners here once or twice a year, for 16 or 20 people.”

The owner initially connected with Makoto through one of his apprentices, who had installed a Japanese soaking tub in the main home. Discussing the potential of a guesthouse, the apprentice said, “ ‘That’s above my level; you need Makoto,’ ” says the owner. “This is all Makoto.”

Makoto Imai works on a shoji panel in his Seabeck workshop. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Makoto Imai works on a shoji panel in his Seabeck workshop. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Typical of Makoto’s work, the materials are natural: clay tile, concrete foundation, Japanese clay plaster walls. And the wood, of course, is perfection: Alaskan yellow cedar posts, Western red cedar beams, entry stairs with bamboo insets — with all wooden joints shaped by hand, by Makoto.

He also built the bamboo fencing and garden structures (Marshall Tyler Rausch Landscape Architects of Pittsburgh, now Pashek+MTR, handled the landscaping). “His design eye is just incredible,” the owner says. “There’s a crooked bridge so bad spirits can’t follow you, and the hillside pagoda had been crowded, so we took out the pine. Makoto said, ‘It’s not happy there.’ ”

The one-bedroom Sukiya Guesthouse that Makoto Imai built sits between a Japanese pond and garden and Puget Sound on a 12-acre estate in Shoreline. “Seattle architects Cardwell Thomas had a friend in Oregon who recommended me,” he says. “They came over here, and at that time, I had more lumber inventory to make a home. Right away, they decided. I designed it. I drew everything and gave it to the architect and constructed it.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
The one-bedroom Sukiya Guesthouse that Makoto Imai built sits between a Japanese pond and garden and Puget Sound on a 12-acre estate in Shoreline. “Seattle architects Cardwell Thomas had a friend in Oregon who recommended me,” he says. “They came over here, and at that time, I had more lumber inventory to make a home. Right away, they decided. I designed it. I drew everything and gave it to the architect and constructed it.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Design, wood and skill joyfully blend in the guesthouse, where traditional Japanese elements (tatami mat flooring, an art niche, sliding shoji screens, post-and-beam construction) accommodate some modern design adjustments.

There’s a coat closet, for one thing, and a water heater in the basement, with radiant heat through the floors. The bathtub is Westernized, too, the owner says, as is the kitchen. “A Japanese house would have a kitchen half this big, and that would be considered a large kitchen. And in a traditional Japanese country house, no one would have any heat other than open fires.”

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And then there’s the soaring central room — a veranda with mesmerizing views wraps three sides — the true hub, and purpose, of the guesthouse.

“Residential construction in Japan is done around tatami mats,” says the owner. “They’re a standard size: a six-tatami mat room, or eight [like the bedroom here]. The tatami mat dictates everything. We have 15 tatami mats in the living room. Would there ever be a house in Japan built like this that a family would live in? No. The living room is three times larger than a house in Japan would have. How many people build a one-bedroom house with an enormous living room? Nobody.”

But here, for special dinners prepared by noted restaurant chefs, it is ideal. Turns out the guests are notable, too.

“We’ve had the Japanese consul here,” the owner says. “Ichiro was here. Makoto sat next to Ichiro.”

LIKE ICHIRO, MAKOTO was born in Japan. Unlike Ichiro, Makoto is nowhere near retired — and he is 72.

Makoto grew up in the town of Hida Takayama, the youngest of nine children, and lived in a farmhouse his family has owned for 250 years. When he was 15, he started an apprenticeship (while studying at night school) and then sharpened his skills by repairing temples in Kyoto.

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In Japan, says Makoto and Shoko’s daughter, Mai Imai Berman, “Makoto’s profession is referred to as shokunin” (craftsman or artisan) — but it wasn’t until he came to Berkeley in the 1970s and taught traditional Japanese woodworking (with very limited English) to Western carpenters that he “started to receive a massive cult following of Americans wanting to see a glimpse of my dad demonstrating construction without using machinery.”

Makoto Imai holds one of his traditional Japanese chisels. “I have many levels of tools,” he says. “I made the tool boxes with a small little plane and chisel.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Makoto Imai holds one of his traditional Japanese chisels. “I have many levels of tools,” he says. “I made the tool boxes with a small little plane and chisel.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Makoto remembers: “That time I came, and wow — in Japan, there aren’t that many people doing this. That was a hippie time [in California]: Many people were interested in Japanese architecture and construction. For them, simple post and beam and simple beauty were a nice feeling.”

He built a lot of homes — and quite the reputation — in the Bay Area, Mai says, continuing to teach and demonstrate woodworking in California and on the East Coast. After two years back in Japan awaiting a permanent visa (he built a Japanese shrine for his parents during that time), Makoto returned to California, lived for 10 years in Weaverville and moved his way up the West Coast.

He says he came to Seabeck 25 years ago for the weather — but, of course, it really was for the wood.

“Oregon and Washington were a great lumber source,” he says. “Somehow, my personality wanted to keep shifting north. California was too dry for the tools and wood — many cracks. I needed to have moisture.”

Mai says not everyone understands why an acclaimed master craftsman would settle in such a secluded little burg. But she gets it. “That is sort of the fascinating part to me,” she says. “He has the privacy and space to store and age the wood, no complaints about workshop sounds, and is living a very authentic Japanese lifestyle in the middle of Seabeck. He’s not in touch with internet/social media and quietly keeps to himself.”

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And he creates. Still. Always.

“The Japanese traditional focus is one thing your whole life,” Makoto says. “That’s what I’m doing: wood and homes. It’s been 50 years now, but still I will keep going.”

This is the view from the hosts’ entrance to the tea room built by Makoto Imai in Ron and Miki Swanson’s Bainbridge Island home. “Water is heated in a kettle that sits in a ro (sunken hearth),” Ron says. “The mizusashi (cold water jar) and chaire (tea container) are placed directly on tatami before the tea event begins.” (Courtesy R.J. Swanson)
This is the view from the hosts’ entrance to the tea room built by Makoto Imai in Ron and Miki Swanson’s Bainbridge Island home. “Water is heated in a kettle that sits in a ro (sunken hearth),” Ron says. “The mizusashi (cold water jar) and chaire (tea container) are placed directly on tatami before the tea event begins.” (Courtesy R.J. Swanson)

MIDWAY OR SO through Makoto’s career, 25 years ago, Ron Swanson was teaching English in Japan, where he met his wife, Miki, and was introduced to a ceremonial tradition that continues to influence and enrich their lives, and their home.

“At the time, I felt I should learn something about Japanese culture,” he says. “A couple of students happened to have a friend who wanted to teach chado (‘the Way of Tea’), and I became her first student. I studied in Japan a year and a half, and continued here. My wife decided she wanted to study chado as well; it’s something we wanted to do together.”

When the couple bought property on Bainbridge Island in 2010, Ron says, “We always had in mind that we’d like to include a chashitsu, a traditional tea room, in the design of our home.”

Makoto took it from there.

Connected to the Swansons’ living room by sliding Western red cedar shoji screens, the peaceful all-wood, 4.5-tatami mat tea-ceremony room Makoto built has a red pine tokobashira (pillar), an adjacent yellow cedar tokonoma (alcove), a closet, a shoji screen window to the outdoors, clay walls and a detachable pendant light that Ron removes during events or chado classes (he now is a teacher).

“It’s incorporated into our lives, so we use it almost every day,” Ron says. “We hang a scroll in the tokonoma. For tea, the scroll is most often Zen words, calligraphy, oftentimes written by a Buddhist priest. Also, we place seasonal flowers in the tokonoma — something we cut from our garden. When these rooms are used, they’re not static. They change with the seasons. The scroll, the flowers, the utensils for different temae [the careful procedures of chado] are seasonal. It’s not as if you were walking into someone’s living room where the furniture is the same every time. It changes with how you use it and the time of year.”

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Ron says the most important aspect of chado “is to make a good bowl of matcha for your guests. Its roots are in ritual etiquette and Zen monastic life. And that’s going back a long time. It’s very much connected to the seasons and to nature and to traditional craft.”

Appropriate, then, that Makoto and Shoko have visited here, too.

“We have developed quite a friendship with Mr. Imai and his wife,” Ron says. “And one thing that I learned — I think this is typical for a lot of craftspeople — is that he rarely has the opportunity to experience his buildings or tea rooms being used. Our friendship has remedied that.”

Makoto Imai walks toward his workshop on his 5-acre property in Seabeck, where he stores and ages wood until it’s just right for the homes and furniture he builds by hand. “In Japan, if you want all post and beam, you make a list, and the lumber store delivers it right away,” he says. “Most basic Japanese homes order from a sawmill. They cut and deliver very green wood. If it’s green lumber, it moves and cracks and shifts unevenly. If it’s straight for walls and it’s green, then it shrinks and breaks the structure – that’s not good for homes.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Makoto Imai walks toward his workshop on his 5-acre property in Seabeck, where he stores and ages wood until it’s just right for the homes and furniture he builds by hand. “In Japan, if you want all post and beam, you make a list, and the lumber store delivers it right away,” he says. “Most basic Japanese homes order from a sawmill. They cut and deliver very green wood. If it’s green lumber, it moves and cracks and shifts unevenly. If it’s straight for walls and it’s green, then it shrinks and breaks the structure – that’s not good for homes.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

OVER TEA AND SANDWICHES at his Seabeck home — upstairs, given the furniture-storage status of the entry level — Makoto and Shoko share an archive of their lives: hand-bound booklets; a copy of Fine Woodworking magazine featuring Makoto; a colorful stack of Shoko’s greeting cards; papers and photos chronicling their history, their family, their work and their plans.

Makoto’s most recent homebuilding project returned him to California this spring — San Francisco, specifically — where his handcrafted work first earned deep appreciation for its most essential element: simple, beautiful authenticity.

Furniture, though, is his future. It’s also simply, beautifully authentic — and abundant: a trunk in the entry, a giant cabinet topped with glass so it won’t scratch, a massive dining table with a movable base. Makoto might have crafted more than one trunk, and cabinet, and table, but each is one-of-a-kind, because each is crafted by a true craftsman.

“Every day, I enjoy working with wood and using my technique with hand tools,” he says. “The modern way is using machinery, because it’s easy to produce and make a profit. But in my head, I do not think about money. If I do, my passion for my craft will become lost.”

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Still, Makoto hopes to sell his handcrafted furniture, so, also by hand, he creates meticulous price sheets on graph paper, with drawings and precise dimensions. Items are numbered, listing their types of wood. He stamps every completed project with his name, and the year it was crafted.

“People don’t realize: Each piece is laying out by hand and figuring out different joints. It’s a process,” he says. “Each piece is a little different. My furniture is unique even in Japan. I’m very unique because most Japanese don’t have the patience.”

Patience is as vital to Makoto’s process as are the wood, the creativity, the authenticity and the craftsmanship that fuel it. All rely on growth.

“People think I’m a master, but for me it doesn’t matter, because everyone is the same,” he says. “The only difference is experience and how much you’ve got the ideas and the skill. I’m still learning.”