Friday, December 2, 2011

Abo Kokeshi in Nuruyu Onsen 温湯温泉の阿保こけし

The Abo's house and workshop. The top of the sign says "Welcome to Kuroishi."
On June 25th we left western Aomori and headed due east toward Nuruyu Onsen 温湯温泉 in the hills outside of Kuroishi, our next overnight destination. For most of our trip we had spectacular weather, and this day was no different -- a cool breeze was blowing under a slightly hazy but bright blue sky without a hint of the brown that normally mars Tokyo's skies. That's Tohoku in the summer.
We made good time on the Tohoku expressway and found that we were too early to check into our room at the onsen, so  what does one do on a kokeshi adventure? Why, hunt for kokeshis of course, and luckily we no trouble finding the Abo kokeshi workshop 阿保こけしや.

At the Abo's you slide open the door, put on some slippers, and observe kokeshis as Naoko is demonstrating above.

The Abo's are a father (Muchihide 六知秀) and son (Masafumi 正文) kokeshi team of the Tsugaru tradition, making both the classical narrow waist type, and another, more primitive-looking branch of the Tsugaru style that's mostly bare wood, a realistic face, thin neck, and limited striping. I'm a big fan of the primitive style, and although I'm hardly an expert I would argue that they are almost a kokeshi type unto themselves. I wonder why the disctinction doesn't exist? Or maybe it does. Anyway, the elder Abo started making kokeshis in 1969 so he's been doing this for a long time, while the younger has only been doing it for a couple of years. Based on what I've seen I'd say he's already a master. The photos below should speak for themselves.

Abo kokeshis for sale. Absolutely stunning work.

Our visit with the Abo family was delightful. As we find with so many of kokeshi makers, they welcomed us right in and seemed delighted that we had taken an interest in their craft. Naoko spent a good deal of time talking with Mr. Abo, while Mrs. Abo knew just what to do with our two energetic girls -- put them to work making their own kokeshis. Unlike most do-it-yourself kokeshis where you replicate a "real" kokeshi, Mrs. Abo had metallic colored pens and stickers, just the kinds of things to keep the attention of young girls. They did a good job too! After they were done with the kokeshis we strolled leisurely through a neighboring apple orchard. Ah, Tsugaru! I truly love this part of Japan. I think we must have been with the Abos for a couple of hours, and we had a wonderful time. Naturally we purchased a selection of their beautiful works, and left with fond memories of this warm-hearted kokeshi-making family.

I've always wondered if kokeshis could successfully be done in modern garb. As a matter of fact, yes they can. 
We bought these two Abo "primitives" as I'll call them, especially in contrast to the large, refined one in the background. The one on the left is by Muchihide-san, while the one on the right is by Masafumi-san. This branch of the Tsugaru kokeshis really has the feel of folk art, which I like.
A closer view of some classical Tsugarus. Note that the smaller ones are 3,000 yen, or about $36 US. That may or may not seem expensive, but that price buys you a piece of perfectly hand crafted, hand-painted art. We bought the big one. The plastic wrapper is to protect from smudging the paint, and it has been recommend to us to keep the wrapper on the kokeshi until it deteriorates away.
Mr. Abo's kokeshi painting area. 
The same spot as above. Note the semi-completed kokeshis awaiting their faces. They really are all hand painted.
Mrs. Abo knew just how to handle the girls, keeping them busy for a while creating their own kokeshis.
The apple orchard right next to the Abo's workshop. This part of Japan is idyllic to me.
Some whimsical hula kokeshis. Mr. Abo occasionally takes orders for painting real faces on kokeshis, and he showed us one he had made for an American. By God, it looked just like the guy!
A masterful male Hina kokeshi 雛こけし, with a female in the background. These are a separate branch of the kokeshi world (Naoko's a fan) that could easily replace the traditional dolls one sees during the Hinamatsuri 雛祭り. Hina dolls are normally not made out of wood, so these are very unique.
Kokeshi-making tools. 
One of the Abo family's lathes.

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