Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Major Kokeshi Adventure

Along the highway.
I have documented various kokeshi adventures in this blog over the last few months. These trips have chiefly occurred in Tokyo or Gunma, with one to southern Fukushima Prefecture. However, from 18-27 June Naoko, the girls, and I upped the level of adventure dramatically by braving radioactivity and earthquake damage -- signs of which were everywhere -- and headed north into Tohoku (東北), the heartland of the traditional kokeshi world. Over the next few blog entries I'll recount the adventure's highlights, however here is an overview of our trip: On 18 June we visited Tsuchiyu Onsen (土湯温泉), a famous hot bath and kokeshi town in Fukushima (about 43 miles west-northwest of the nuclear power plant disaster area), for a couple of hours on our way to Misawa City (三沢市) in Aomori Prefecture (青森県). On 20 June we went to see a lone Tsugaru-style (津軽系) kokeshi maker in Kamikita Village (上北村), followed by a visit to an old kokeshi shop on the shore of Lake Towada (十和田湖). On 23 June,
Shop sign.
after a two-day break from kokeshis, we crossed Mt. Hakkoda and passed through the onsen town of Kuroishi (黒石市) and headed to Hirosaki City (弘前市) where we met a couple of kokeshi makers at that city's "Neputa Mura" (ねぷた村) traditional crafts center. On 25 June we left Misawa for Kuroishi where we stayed in the onsen village of Nuruyu (温湯温泉), which is also a kokeshi-making area. On that day we visited a kokeshi maker's workshop, and then headed to the spectacular Kokeshi Museum (こけし館) in the hills outside Kuroishi. On 26 June we returned to the Kokeshi Museum for a couple of hours, and then headed south to Yuzawa Onsen (湯沢温泉) in Akita Prefecture (秋田県) where we spent the night and met a kokeshi maker of the Kijiyama Style (木地山系). On 27 June we headed through the heart of Yamagata Prefecture (山形県) to Tendo Onsen (天童温泉) where we visited two Yamagata Style (山形系) kokeshi makers' shops.


Kokeshi lantern.
While this wasn't exactly the "kokeshi adventure to end all kokeshi adventures," it was pretty spectacular. We made lots of news friends, sampled delicious local foods, relaxed in many hot baths, immersed ourselves in the beautiful Tohoku countryside, and of course added plenty of new kokeshis to our collection. It was also, in a small way, our way of letting the people of northeastern Japan know that they haven't been forgotten in the post-disaster period. Over the next few days I look forward to providing detailed blog accounts of this significant kokeshi adventure.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mini Kokeshis

We saw these in the Usaburo factory museum.
There's a branch of the kokeshi world that goes beyond small into the realm of tiny. I'll call them mini-kokeshis for lack of a better term. These little guys are amazing, and among traditional kokeshis they are often exact duplicates of their larger sisters. Believe it or not these aren't the smallest ones out there, but I'll save those for another blog. If one were to specialize in mini-kokeshis he could have hundreds in the same space as dozens of regular-sized kokeshis. Naoko seems to prefer them, and we've heard that young Japanese females really like them for their cuteness. Therefore, we'll probably see more of these in the future.
Our first mini-kokeshis were two modern ones received from Naoko's dear old aunt. She had purchased them as souveniers decades ago, and when she found out that we liked kokeshis she gave them to us. One can see their diminutive size by comparing them to an American penny. By the way, we know that these are Usaburo kokeshis from Gunma Prefecture since we saw them displayed in the museum at the Usaburo factory (see blog post). Therefore, we have a couple of museum pieces in our collection!
We found another mini-kokeshi recently at a local bazaar, which is possibly a Yajiro (弥治郎系). It was about 150 yen, a more-than-reasonable price, especially considering its condition. It's about 2.5 times the size of a penny.
The Sato (佐藤) family makes mini Yajiro kokeshis. We visited their workshop in Iwaki City, Fukushima on March 6th (see blog post), and less than a week later they were forced to move to Gunma Prefecture as a result of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami disaster. I'll discuss that in a future blog. Important here is that the Satos also make mini-kokeshis. In fact Mr. Sato told Naoko that his tiny ones (he makes at least ten different ones) are really the peak of his craft because they require such fine detail. See what you think.

A tiny Sato kokeshi. The hand-painted detail is stunning.
Another tiny Sato kokeshi next to a regular-sized Sato piece.
The same tiny kokeshi. For perspective, here's a Princess Leia action figure dwarfing the mini-kokeshi.


Kijiyama Kokeshis in Hachioji 八王子の木地山系こけし

Okuragumi Demolition Company.
Back in February Naoko, Emily and I had a fantastic Kokeshi Adventure in Hachioji, a large city within the greater Tokyo metro area near the mountains in the western part of the Kanto Plain. As reported in a blog back at that time, we visited the workshop and studio of Tokyo Kokeshi in the heart of Hachioji. On that same day we also visited Mr. Ogura Eiji (小椋英二さん) at his workplace in the suburbs of Hachioji, guided by information found in the Kokeshi Book. Unlike other kokeshi makers we've met, Mr. Ogura seems to do his art as a hobby. He does not have a workshop -- at least not one open to the public -- and in fact probably does not lathe the kokeshi bodies himself. We called him before showing up, and the person who answered was confused. "Kokeshis? What?" But Naoko explained about seeing his name in the Kokeshi Book, and we then received directions to what we thought was his "studio." After arriving it became clear why the person on the phone had no idea what we were talking about. Mr. Ogura, you see, is the owner of a demolition company called Oguragumi, and merely keeps some of his dolls in his office at the company for when visitors stop by. In my opinion the contrast between someone who demolishes buildings for a living, and one who makes kokeshi dolls couldn't be greater. Yet that's the way things are, and the Okuragumi building's giant rolling door depicts a mural of three kokeshis and a craftsman in honor of the tradition.
Okuragumi's giant kokeshi mural.
Anyway, Mr. Ogura's kokeshis are splendid -- earthy, understated, and folksy, with delightfully expressive faces. They are of the Kijiyama family (木地山系) of kokeshis that originated in Akita Prefecture (秋田県), and in fact his uncle was the famous kokeshi craftsman Ogura Kyutaro (小椋久太郎) from Akita. We were welcomed into the main office where a number of Mr. Ogura's kokeshis were on display, offered tea and juice, and simply enjoyed being around these beautifully crafted objects for about 20 minutes. Because this was an early kokeshi adventure we didn't really quite know what we were seeing, but it was definitely well worth the effort!

A selection of Mr. Ogura's kokeshis.
I really liked these. They have an unusual vase-shaped body.
A group of Ogura kokeshis.
Two giant kokeshis by Mr. Ogura's uncle Ogura Kyutaro.
Naoko was captivated by this one's charming face -- a true work of kokeshi art.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Kokeshi Books

Evans and Wolf's book -- a work of art.
In Japan, it seems, a topic's popularity is commensurate with the number of books available at the bookstore about said topic. For instance, bookstores in this country are full of volumes on pottery, railroads, architecture, cooking, plants, bugs, hiking, mountains, and so forth. The fact that there are almost no books available on kokeshis sadly reveals a general lack of interest in this wonderful craft. However, there are some available if one knows where to look. For books in English, there is only one that I am aware of: A relatively new book (2005) from the United States that's still available entitled Kokeshi: Wooden Treasures of Japan by Michael Evans and Robert Wolf. I got mine new on eBay a few years ago and it's been well worth it. For English-speaking enthusiasts this beautiful work is a must have, as it covers both traditional and creative/modern kokeshis. I think it's fair to say that this is THE foundational work on kokehsis in English, although there is definitely room for more detailed works in the future.

A page from Evans and Wolf.

Another page from Evans and Wolf.
The Japanese-language book on kokeshis that everyone ought to have -- Japanese and foreigners alike -- is Cochae's (A collaborative name) work from 2008 entitled こけし (Kokeshi) in Japanese, or Kokeshi Book in English. The book covers the eleven traditional kokeshi families from Tohoku, as well as ephemera and kokeshi goods. No modern kokeshis here! Alas, for those who don't read Japanese there is little English in it, but then, why not use it to practice reading Japanese? The book's photography, design, and eye for humor will be evident to everyone, and in fact it's as much a book on design and color as it is about kokeshis. Tellingly, when I've seen this work in bookstores it's been in the graphic design section rather than in the art or traditional crafts sections. Kokeshi Book is a must have for anyone interested in kokeshis, and for only 1,680 yen it's a bargain.
Cover of Kokeshi Book. That's a Tsugaru kokeshi on the cover by the way.
A random page from Kokeshi Book. Most photos focus on the intrinsic whimsicalness of traditional kokeshis.
As one's kokeshi connoisseurship develops, so too does the need for more detailed information about these colorful wooden dolls. I found this one -- Traditional Arts: Tohoku Kokeshi (伝統工芸東北のこけし) by Mr. Takai Satoshi (高井佐寿) at an online used bookstore for about 3,000 yen, though its cover price is 5,000 yen. Even though it came out in 2009 it's already out of print, but I think copies are still available in Japan. There are 140 color pages, and if your goal is to just stare at page after page of different kokeshis this book is for you. It's especially useful for learning to identity the different kokeshi makers' styles.

Traditional Arts: Tohoku Kokeshi cover.
Random pages from the book.
Close up of a page from Traditional Arts: Tohoku Kokeshi. 
Anyone who has read other posts on this blog knows that Naoko and I get a great deal of pleasure out of visiting kokeshi makers at their workshops -- that's the adventure part. The following two books are fantastic handbooks for helping to find out precisely where those workshops are located. I suppose the downside to these books has been finding that many of the kokeshi makers up in Tohoku are in their 80s or more, and possibly have already gone on to the next world. But still, these books should be very useful for anyone embarking on a serious kokeshi adventure!

Newest Record of Kokeshi Makers, 2003. A friend loaned this to us -- I don't know if it's still available.
A page from Newest Record of Kokeshi Makers.
A True Record of Kokeshi Makers, 2005. Also on loan to us. We'll have to get our own copy.
A page from A True Record of Kokeshi Makers. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Nishiogi Kokeshi Festival

Close-up of the event poster.

Kokeshi adventures are where you find them. On June 5th Naoko, the girls and I headed to Nishiogikubo (西荻窪) near downtown Tokyo for the first Nishiogi Kokeshi Matsuri (西荻こけし祭り). We found out about the event through a Japanese kokeshi blog, but didn't really know what to expect. Naoko did know, however, that there would be some "kokeshi goods" available. Kokeshi goods, as can be seen in some of the photos below, are kokeshi-inspired crafts of various sorts -- a fun sub-culture within the world of kokeshis. We bought a few of those of course, and not surprisingly there were kokeshis available for sale, both new and used. We came home with two beautiful ones: A humorous Togatta (遠刈田) and a striking Naruko (鳴子) -- see photo. I must say that there was a really nice feeling at this "festival". Kokeshi lovers, it turns out, are a very pleasant group of people. There was a presentation of some sort later in the day -- hence the chairs in the photo -- but we weren't able to stay for that. Overall, a grade-A kokeshi adventure!

There were lots of people -- many more than were expected.
Checking out some kokeshi goods.
Display and kokeshi artwork, possibly by manga artist Sakura Momoko (さくらももこ).
Kokeshis for sale.
More kokeshis for sale.
Kokeshi fans at one of the tables.
Honest to goodness kokeshi-inspired record album artwork from the old days. The guy displaying these acutally had a working record player, which was new to my kids.
Our two newest kokeshis. The chubby one on the left is a Togatta, and the one on the right is a Naruko. Both are small.
Kokeshi-inspired stickers, some of which remind me of the old Nancy comic strip.
Kokeshi goods.
Brochures for visiting kokeshi-making areas in northeastern Japan.
A kokeshi fan made this pamphlet -- 50 yen -- in order to help fellow connoisseurs find all 25 kokeshi makers in the Naruko onsen area.  
A kokeshi-inspired tenugui (てぬぐい), a light hand towel. Some of the sale's proceeds went to support disaster relief in the Tohoku area.
Another kokeshi-inspired tenugui. As with the one above, some of the proceeds went to support disaster relief in the Tohoku area.
What American can resist a t-shirt, especially one that has all eleven of Japan's kokeshi families on it?