Sunday, July 17, 2011

Honma Kokeshi Workshop 本間こけし工房

Aomori's stunning Oirase Gorge.
To me northeastern Japan -- Tohoku -- is a very different Japan than the Tokyo area. Tsunamis and massive earthquakes notwithstanding, the air and rivers there are cleaner, the population is much thinner, and the countryside is distinctly prettier. To my pleasant surprise the region also seems more prosperous than when we lived there sixteen years prior -- the roads are markedly better, the houses appear bigger and newer, and the people's spirits seem more radiant. Maybe it was the new bullet train line that the East Japan Railway Company just extended to Aomori City, finally connecting northernmost Honshu into the nation's high-speed rail network. If it wasn't for the Fukushima power plant disaster I am certain that Tohoku would be facing a bright future, despite the March 11th tsunami. The Fukushima disaster has changed everything, and has added a large degree of uncertainty that everyone in Japan feels. At the same time, though, everywhere we went up north were signs saying Gambaro Tohoku! ("You can do it Tohoku!"), so they're perservering as best they can.
Gambaro Tohoku!
Generally speaking northeastern Japan remains largely agricultural and traditional. This, in my opinion, is a good thing. Among those traditions, of course, is kokeshi making, and it was to visit some craftsmen that Naoko, the girls and I headed up north. While our side trip to Tsuchiyu Onsen (see previous blogs) was certainly a serendipitous adventure, our drive to meet kokeshi maker Naoko Honma was not. We called her before our trip even started and made an appointment to ensure that she would be available. On 20 June we headed through the rolling hills of western Aormori prefecture, soon arriving at the small town of Kamikita (上北町). Despite Kamikita's small size we still managed to get lost and were already driving out of town when we realized that we had better call Mrs. Honma and get new directions. As I've mentioned in other blog posts, going to some kokeshi makers' workshops is not always easy and often requires native or high-level Japanese language skills. That was the case in this instance. Oh, and did I say "craftsmen" earlier? Yes, some kokeshi makers, like Naoko Honma, are indeed women.

Mrs. Honma's workshop.
Baby Honma kokeshis. Cute.
We finally arrived at the workshop which, like many we've been to, was simply a shed connected to the house. Mrs. Honma welcomed us in like old friends and served Aomori apple juice, local coffee, and local nagaimo (literally "long-potato", or Chinese yam) donuts which were just outstanding. She showed us her lathe and some recent projects, which were all terrific, and then she and Naoko proceeded to talk about all sorts of things, including the art of the Tsugaru kokeshi. Mrs. Honma works in the Tsugaru style (津軽系) like most kokeshi makers in Aomori Prefecture. As such, her kokeshis tend to follow the typical strictures of that school -- defined chest and waist, Ainu pattern around the neck, often a painting of Daruma's face, etc -- and are beautiful. She first started making kokeshis 30 years ago, and during that time has been able to develop a few additions of her own. On the day we visited she had created a small, demure young girl that is definitely a "Honma" design, as well as some medium and small ones painted with her own design which is a verdant maple leaf on a dark green background. Are were delightful, and of course we walked away with some wonderful pieces. Interestingly, the larger one we purchased was wrapped in plastic, which is something one sees with Tsugaru kokeshis.
Apple juice, donuts, and kokeshis.
According to Mrs. Honma, one doesn't take the plastic off. Rather, you simply wait until it falls away while the paint cures (this can take a while). Unlike most other kokeshi types, Tsugaru kokeshis are not waxed and thus when freshly made the paint will rub off on one's hands quite easily. Therefore, our larger Honma kokeshi will be in its plastic cover for the foreseeable future.
Overall, it was a pleasure to meet such a master craftsman as Mrs. Honma, and was a great way to start our big Tohoku kokeshi adventure!

The two Naokos discussing the finer points of the Tsugaru kokeshi tradition.
Mrs. Honma's workshop and some recently completed kokeshis. Note the plastic covers: Do not remove!
Mrs. Honma's kokeshis. The one on the left is a standard Tsugaru. The rest are unique designs. 

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