Stone man: Toru Oba rocks

Toru Oba's fingers are short and thick. At each fingertip there's a wide, square fingernail, and at the joint just above where thumb meets wrist, a round callous like a quarter set on his hand.

He's holding out a snapshot of what appears to be a tall, contoured rock wall. It looks like a dried river bed torn out of the ground and set on end. It also appears to be indoors.

"Oh, yes," says Oba of his handiwork. "Its an indoor waterfall. That one only took me seven weeks."

For one of the region's few stonecutters and perhaps the only person in this area capable of building something like that, seven weeks is not a particularly involved job. One recent commission kept Oba busy for over three years.

A local homeowner allowed Oba to convert what looks like his entire back yard into terraces of four-inch-thick slabs of granite. Spaced liberally around the area are what appear to be whole boulders set directly into the cut granite. Oba has gouged some boulders while others, completely untouched, look as if they had always been there and Oba simply worked around them.

This is Oba's preferred style– an all-stone environment that preserves as much of the rock's natural shape and surface as possible.

As Oba recalls, for that job he had been recommended by the architect. But when Oba first arrived, the homeowner wanted to float his own ideas. "He said, 'I have this design in mind,'" says Oba. "But the architect, she knew better. She said, 'Let him design it.' And so I did."

After a small taste of Oba's work, the homeowner dropped his own plans and let Oba plan and complete the entire project. "It took me out of circulation for a while, but it was a good job," he says.

Oba, a self-described hippie, left his native Japan after dropping out of school. "In Japan, if you don't finish school, you have no future," he explains. He wandered through Europe for a few years where, in the south of France, he found work restoring dilapidated old villages– his first introduction to stone cutting. He also met his wife in Europe she's an American who brought him back with her, first to West Virginia and later to Virginia.

Oba describes himself as having a Japanese eye and a European influence, which is literally true. His sojourn through Europe produced his introduction to stone cutting, though his style– rough surfaces juxtaposed against smooth ones, wide-open spaces, and nature-like arrangements– betrays a very Japanese aesthetic.

The stonecutter, who works job to job and markets only by word of mouth (he admits to being a poor self-promoter) regularly travels between Charlottesville and quarries in Schuyler or Culpeper, where he and his two assistants, Two Bears and Elizabeth Noisos, regularly manipulate boulders weighing several tons.

All the heavy lifting has given Oba a workman's physique– his compact frame can't hide his thick torso, and even in winter, he keeps a dark tan. Oftentimes, he acknowledges, he's mistaken for a common laborer. But he says the confusion doesn't bother him so much, as long as architects continue to mention him, and homeowners wealthy enough to commission indoor waterfalls continue to give him free rein.

"I go to a job site, look at it, and can see what's going on," he said. "I see stones, and I know just where to put them."