The parade that is Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice is in full swing on a Sunday afternoon. Parents wrestle Bugaboos through the crowded street. Shoppers use iPhones to snap photos of sales displays. At Intelligentsia, hipsters linger over $5 cups of sourced coffee.
You make your way through it all on the way to a quiet courtyard near California Street. There, behind a clothing shop and a hair salon, seated beneath a towering tree, is Yo Takimoto, master Japanese woodcarver, ready to teach. Takimoto, 61, a native of Yokohama, is wearing loose denim pants, a soft cotton T-shirt and tatami sandals on his bare feet.
On one side of the courtyard is a selection of wood — small segments of manzanita, giant sequoia, juniper, driftwood, black persimmon, old plum. Across the way lies an array of implements — simple Japanese knives and chisels, thumb protectors, bandaids, sandpaper and bees wax.
The class begins the minute the first student enters. Takimoto helps him select a piece of wood, hands over a knife and shows how to use it. A few quick strokes and, with the instruction to let the wood speak for itself, the student is launched. The courtyard quickly fills up, the wood carvers intent on the task at hand, the transformation taking place in their hands.
"I want my students not to think about the final image or the final shape," Takimoto says. "I want them to study the wood, let the wood speak."
The USC-trained architect left a successful career as a city planner in Japan in order to devote himself to carving, and he makes sure the wood has the last word. One by one he joins each student, offers comments and suggestions, sometimes makes a few swift cuts to send a project on its way.
"Whenever I carve, for three hours I don't know the final shape of the wood, not until the end, when it appears," Takimoto says.
For David Blankenship, a 43-year-old graphic designer from Hollywood, this is his 20th class with Takimoto.
"I love the bristlecone pine, which smells fantastic," Blankenship says. "For three hours, I think of nothing but this piece of wood. On many Sundays, this is what I need to face another Monday."
As the class nears its close, Takimoto hands out small pieces of sandpaper. The students polish their pieces, working their way through varying grits to end with a thin-ribbed reed of horsetail. The final task — a coating of soft, fragrant beeswax — adds depth to the wood and makes it glow.
"I learned when I was a boy to carve wood," Takimoto says. "Then I went into business and I forgot. So I changed my business again and now I work with the wood again, in the Japanese way, to feel the tender heart of nature."
Takimoto's classes are offered through Tortoise General Store in Venice, (310) 314-8448, http://www.tortoisegeneralstore.com. The cost is $30 for three hours. The sessions sell out quickly.