Friday, November 25, 2011

Kuroishi Kokeshi 黒石のこけし

The heartland of Aomori Prefecture's kokeshi tradition is the northwest area, known by its traditional name Tsugaru 津軽 where the Tsugaru-type 津軽系 kokeshi originated. They are easy to spot with the Ainu pattern near the neckline, a clearly defined female waist and chest, and often the Buddhist saint Daruma's 達磨 face at the base. Although there is of course variety among the makers' works, when you see a true Tsugaru kokeshi you know it immediately. 
Our drive to get to Kuroishi took us past Mt. Hakkoda 八甲田山 and through these smaller mountains. It was pretty wild in this area.
Our summer adventure plan was to stay at an onsen town in the hills above Kuroishi City 黒石市, which I'll explain in an upcoming blog. Meanwhile, on 23 June we were driving through the Mt. Hakkoda 八甲田山 National Park on a day trip and realized that we were actually pretty close to Kuroishi, so why not head down and see if we could find some kokeshi makers? After going up and down some pretty steep roads, stopping at a centuries old onsen for lunch (Sukayu Onsen 酸ヶ湯温泉 where I feasted on a plate of absolutely succulent fried scallops), and meandering through seemingly primeval forests, we finally broke through into Kuroishi where we were greeted by a giant Tsugaru kokeshi up on a pedestal that said "welcome to Kuroishi." Well thank you very much for that warm welcome Kuroishi City! We were definitely in the right place.
After our long drive over the mountains we knew we were getting close when this giant Tsugaru kokeshi greeted us.
It turned out that we were fairly close to the workshop of Ms. Okuse Yoko 奥瀬陽子さん, a well-known Tsugaru kokeshi maker. You see, her late husband Mr. Okuse Tetsunori 奥瀬鉄則さん was the protege of Mr. Mori Hidetaro 盛秀太郎さん who created the original Tsugaru kokeshi. Mr. Okuse husband continued it, and now she and her son Keisuku 恵介さん are the current generation of that kokeshi line. Anyway, after a few wrong turns we eventually found her place, an old wooden house covered in vines. Definitely the kind of place where an artist would live.
The Okuse home and workshop.  It wasn't easy to find, so future visitors are forewarned. 
Interestingly, Ms. Okuse did not start making kokeshis until November 1994, a couple of years after her husband passed away, while Keisuke began in 2000. They must have kokeshi blood flowing in their veins because their work is of the highest quality and is sought after by collectors. In fact when we showed up at their workshop there really wasn't anything available. Rather, they take orders from a catalogue of their pieces, a pretty interesting way to do it.
Some Okuse pieces. Her craftsmanship and family designs are of the highest quality in my opinion. 
Ms. Okuse and Keisuke welcomed Naoko right in while I snoozed in the car with the kids -- the drive through the mountains was exhausting -- and I have no idea how long she was in the house. Eventually I went in to say hello, and sure enough I had entered into a kokeshi workshop. I have to admit, though, that it was surprising to find that there weren't really any Okuse kokeshis for sale! Oh well. Naoko bought a copy of their catalogue, which also contains good info on the history of the Tsugaru kokeshi tradition, and then we said goodbye. This was a small kokeshi adventure since we managed to meet two craftsmen, but have to admit it was something of a disappointment not to bring any Okuse pieces home. Next time for sure!
That's the Okuse's kokeshi collection in the back, which was started by the late Mr. Okuse. The five small ones in the front were for sale, but we decided to pass and wait to get an Okuse piece that really stuck out at us.
Lena getting to know Ms. Okuse.
One of Kuroishi City's manhole covers, located on the street right outside Ms. Okuse's house. One sees unique manhole covers in just about every city, a part of Japan I like, and something you can see only if you look down once in a while. 

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