Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Kokeshi お正月のこけし

It's now December 31st, 2012, so this will be my final blog post for the year. I hope you have enjoyed reading about kokeshis as much as I've enjoyed writing about them. I look forward to continuing describing our Kokeshi Adventures througout 2013 and beyond.
Meanwhile, during a kokeshi adventure we took up north just last week (about which I'll report in some upcoming blogs), Naoko found this amazing 3-inch piece by master craftsman Mr. Hiraga Teruyuki 平賀輝幸さん of Sakunami Onsen 作並温泉. Mr. Hiraga is a real genius at creating completely new styles out of traditional kokeshis, and this one is just fantastic. If you know anything about New Year's celebrations in Japan then you'll immediately recognize the two symbols on this kokeshi's head. The white balls are mochi, which is glutonous rice pounded into a sticky mass and made into a 2-layered snowman shape, while the orange ball on top is a mikan, a kind of tangerine or manderin orange, which everyone in Japan eats during the winter. At New Year's these two items are typically placed as offerings in front of the kamidama, or "god-shelf," which most or all Japanese houses have. It's nothing complicated, and at this point perhaps more of a tradition than anything else, and yet the mochi and mikan are symbolic that the new year is beginning. Therefore, this is a perfect kokeshi to have out at this time of year! Oh yes, I should mention that the mochi and mikan on this little kokeshi are not real -- they are wood lathed and painted by Mr. Hiraga.  

Monday, December 24, 2012

King of Cute カワイイ

Our first Abe Tsunekichi kokeshi. 
As you may have noticed in previous blog posts, Naoko likes kokeshis by the Abe family of Atsumi Onsen 温海温泉 on the Japan Sea in Yamagata Prefecture. Abe kokeshis, which are part of the greater Zao-Takayu 蔵王高湯系 family, do not look like other Zao kokeshis but they are very easy to recognize. They are the ones with the suprised, wideset eyes, and often have a nice half-circle pattern around the neck and chest area. Nobody else does kokeshis like this, so they are truly unique in the kokeshi world.
One of the first traditional kokeshis that we acquired two years ago was a vintage Abe piece (I wrote about that kokeshi in one of my first Kokeshi Adventures blogs), and since that time we've been trying to increase our collection, little by little, though most of them have been used kokeshis. The reason for that is that Abe kokeshis are not easy to find. First of all, Atsumi Onsen is really out of the way compared to other kokeshi towns that we have visited. Secondly, Abe kokeshis are very popular, so Naoko's not the only person collecting them and they're usually snatched up quickly at the Tokyo Kokeshi Friends meetings. Finally, only Mr. Abe Shin'ya 阿部進矢さん is making them. His father Mr. Abe Tsunekichi 阿部常吉さん, the artist who really developed the "Abe Style" passed away in 1992 at the age of 87. Interestingly, our Abe collection is made up chiefly of kokeshis by Tsunekichi. In fact, the following eight are his, the last five of which are a beautiful set of small, 3.5-inch kokeshis that Naoko won in a recent auction. As you'll notice, they all look quite surprised!

Meanwhile, here are our ones by Shin'ya. Naoko's favorite is the last one with the Daruma face, which is really cute. This brings me to the title of today's blog, "King of Cute." The Kokeshi Book by Cochae called Abe Shin'ya and his style the King of カワイイ (kawaii), which means cute, and by God Cochae's right! Ultimately, I think will have to be to drive up to Atsumi Onsen on an upcoming kokeshi adventure and meet the King of Cute in person.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Kokeshi Bath Sign こけしのお風呂場の標識

At this summer's All Japan Kokeshi Festival in Naruko I picked up this nice kokeshi item -- a sign for hanging outside one's bath. We know that's what it's for because the green hiragana is ゆ "yu," which always indicates a bath when used by itself like this. This is a simple yet beautiful piece that shows how kokeshi art can be quite decorative. And notice how the artist used the wood's center ring to give the impression of the head -- very clever!
Figuring out who made it, however, proved to be somewhat challenging. The craftsman's first name is on the left 宣直. However, it's an unusual name and Naoko wasn't sure how to read it. Moreover, when I looked for it under the listing of Naruko kokeshi craftsmen in the most recent craftsmen's guide the name does not appear there. I tripled checked it, but sure enough, 宣直 was not listed as a current kokeshi craftsman. But then if he's not a current craftsman then how was I able to get this as a new item in 2012?
Naoko finally found the name listed in a family tree of the Takahashi family as the son of long-time craftsman Mr. Takashi Shogo 高橋正吾さん, but again, 宣直 did not appear in the craftsman's guide, and was not shown in the Naruko edition of Kokeshi Jidai magazine either, though Shogo was. Curiouser and curiouser.
Well, Naoko finally found 宣直 in the 1994 and 2007 editions of the craftsmen's guide (showing why the older editions have value), so we finally knew how to pronounce his name: Yoshinao. We were also able to verify that he had been active as a kokeshi craftsman until fairly recently. We don't understand what his current status is, but the fact that Mr. Takahashi Yoshinao made this sign suggests that he's at least somewhat active in the kokeshi world.
As to where you can get one of these items, you'll need to go to Naruko!

Monday, December 17, 2012

12 Kokeshi Faces 12面こけしの顔

All kokeshi enthusiasts have personal reasons why they find their little wooden cylindrical friends to be appealing. As I've explained before, I'm convinced that it's all in the face. Below we have twelve faces from twelve different craftsman from the eleven kokeshi families. They are all beautiful, and as you'll notice they all have completely different personalities. Examine the simplicity -- just a mouth, nose, eyes, and eyebrows. Absolute genius. There's no shading along the nose, no laugh lines or forehead lines, no eyelashes, no philtrum, no ears, no nostrils, no chin. Only one of them has cheeks, hinted at with a light dusting of red. Rather, what we are looking is really the purest essence of a face. This, in my opinion, is also the essence of the kokeshi, for you can have a kokeshi head and it's still basically a kokeshi, but if you just have the body you only have a brightly painted piece of wood. Well, see what you think.
This beauty is an Owani kokeshi 大鰐こけし, a branch of the Tsugaru type 津軽系こけし, created by Mr. Hasegawa Kenzo 長谷川健三さん. That mouth is really stunning.
A Togatta kokeshi 遠刈田系こけし by Mr. Waguma Satoshi 我妻敏さん.
This handsome face is a Kijiyama kokeshi 木地山系こけし by Mr. Takahashi Yuji 高橋雄司さん. I like how the wood grain in the center has become part of the nose. 
A very striking, almost Buddha-like face on a Yajiro kokeshi 弥次郎系こけし by Mr.  Sato Yoshiaki 佐藤慶明さん.
Here we have a much more stylized face. This is a Sakunami kokeshi 作並系こけし by Mr. Suzuki Akira 鈴木明さん.
We don't have many Nanbu kokeshis 南部系こけし in our collection, but here's a nice one by Mr.  Takahashi Kinzo 高橋金三さん.
One of my all-time favorite kokeshi faces is this seemingly bored Zao kokeshi 蔵王系こけし by Mr. Ishiyama Kazuo 石山和夫さん.
This is the one with cheeks that I mentioned above. Actually, it's just a bit of ruddiness that suggests cheeks, so its within the kokeshi minimalism that we expect. This is a cute Yamagata kokeshi 山形系こけし by Mr. Aida Eiji 会田栄治さん.
This magnificent face looks severe to me. I love it. The mouth is wonderful, and look at how the eyes have been brought to life with the end of a brush stroke. This is a Hijiori kokeshi 肘折系こけし by master craftsman Mr. Sato Shoichi 佐藤昭一さん.
This face is whimsical, and somehow also looks chubby. It's a Tsuchiyu kokeshi 土湯系こけし by Mr. Jinnohara Yukinori 陣野原幸紀さん.
A perfect face. This is a Naruko kokeshi 鳴子系こけし by Mr. Kakizawa Koretaka 柿澤是隆さん.
And finally, while I already showed a Zao above I couldn't resist throwing in  a picture of an Abe Shin'ya 阿部進矢kokeshi. His faces are utterly unique within the traditional kokeshi world with their wide set eyes and tiny mouths.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Kokeshi Orai こけし往来

The cover of the December 2012 Kokeshi Orai.
I have hinted in this blog that there are different levels of kokeshi enthusiasm among collectors. For instance, Naoko and I enjoy the adventure of travelling to find kokeshis and their makers just as much as we enjoy having a bunch of kokeshis in the house. In fact, awareness of the connection between a kokeshi and its artisan is probably the most pleasurable aspect of this delightful endeavor of ours.
Now, there are probably some people out there who are less serious about kokeshis than us, but I can say for certain that there are also many who are infinitely more serious. For these enthusiasts kokeshis aren't displayed because they are cute, or colorful, they are likely not used as Christmas tree decorations, and they are certainly not playthings for young girls (guilty!). No, for this particular group of collectors kokeshis are art objects with important histories and often high monetary value. Until recently I was vaguely aware of this level of interest among my fellow enthusiasts, but it really came to my attention a few months ago when Naoko bought a copy of the periodic booklet Kokeshi Orai こけし往来, a guide of antique and valuable kokeshis produced by a used bookstore and antique kokeshi shop located in the Kanda area of Tokyo (the location where Naoko and I were interviewed for the NHK program a few months ago). The booklet is in color and each issue has some articles and other information, making it part of the kokeshi literature. And I love that the picture on the front is an actual photograph that's been hand cut and glued on making Kokeshi Orai a semi-handcrafted work. It is also a de facto price guide since the point of the booklet is to sell high-value kokeshis at set prices. And believe me, while many kokeshis are available for $25 or $30, some of them are really expensive. Kokeshis priced at $200 or $300 are fairly common, and there are ones selling for about $1,200 (100,000 yen). I presume they're priced at that level because someone is willing to pay that much, so again, that would make Kokeshi Orai a kind of price guide. Japanese collectors probably already know all about this world of valuable kokeshis, but I would guess that overseas enthusiasts have no idea. Well, now you know! Oh yes, Naoko has successfully purchased a couple of nice, reasonably priced pieces from Kokeshi Orai, so it's definitely a good source of used kokeshis for collectors of all levels and interests.
A page from the December 2012 Kokeshi Orai. The colorful one in the center is priced at 100,000 yen, or about $1,200. The one on the left is 40,000 yen or about $500, and the one on the right is 20,000, or about $250.
Not all of the kokeshis are outrageously expensive. In fact many are priced very nicely as you can see on these pages.

Kokeshi Booms こけしブーム

Kokeshi Friends journal.
Dear readers, I am pleased to announce that there has probably been no better time to be a kokeshi enthusiast, at least in recent decades. According to some of our fellow collectors -- those with much more experience under their belts than Naoko or me -- the kokeshi world is in the midst of its third boom 第三次ブーム in popularity. As you may have noticed in this blog a number of books and magazines on kokeshis have come out in the last couple of years, there have been good deal of kokeshi events in Tokyo, and the variety of kokeshi goods こけしグーズ (items with kokeshi themes or graphics) for sale is truly striking. While I admittedly never really paid attention to the kokeshi world before 2010, I'm pretty sure kokeshis were not as visible as they are today.
The Tokyo Friends of Kokeshi Association covered this very topic of the 3rd Kokeshi Boom in the November 2012 edition of its monthly journal こけし手帖, mentioning that the boom was sparked in part by the Kokeshi Book which came out in April 2010. Rather serendipitously Naoko and I had just rediscovered kokeshis at the end of 2009, so its publication book was auspicious to say the least (I discussed that beautiful and highly recommended book in my 9 June 2011 blog). According to the article the Kokeshi Book's presentation of kokeshis as cute little art objects with distinct personalities allowed people to appreciate them in an entirely new way. The article also mentioned the significance of the superb Kokeshi Jidai こけし時代 magazine, the innovative work of the great folks up at the Tsugaru Kokeshi Kan (especially their use of the Internet where they do a daily blog and announce numerous events), and the large numbers of females in their 30s who appreciate kokeshis in an entirely different way than previous generations of enthusiasts. As result we are indeed in the midst of kokeshi boom, which is great for collectors and craftsmen alike.
The article on the 3rd Kokeshi Boom.
All of this begs the question: If we're now in the 3rd Kokeshi Boom, when were the 1st and 2nd booms? According to the article the first boom occurred in the pre-WWII period and lasted for about ten years, ending around 1940 as Japan plunged itself further into war. Interestingly, this initial boom also started with a book that popularized kokeshis as a folk art distinct from other wooden toys.
The 2nd Kokeshi Boom started in the 1950s and went on for more than two decades. The Tokyo Friends of Kokeshi Association started during the 2nd boom, and it was also during this time that  many books based on serious research about the tradition were published.
So, if you've been wondering when it might be a good time to come to Japan and visit some kokeshi makers, why not right now during the 3rd Kokeshi Boom?    

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Mr. Kojima Toshiyuki 小島俊幸さん

The other day, Mr. Kojima Toshiyuki, a kokeshi craftsman of the Tsugaru tradition from Kuroishi City in Aomori Prefecture passed away at the relatively young age of 64. Kokeshi makers typically seem to live to a ripe old age, so this was a something of a shock. The Tsugaru Kokeshi Kan 津軽こけし館 wrote a nice eulogy about him on its daily blog (in Japanese).
Sadly Naoko and I never got to meet Mr. Kojima during our adventures in Aomori, but after learning of his death Naoko pulled the only Kojima we have in our collection. It's now on special display in remembrance of him. Below is Mr. Kojima's page in the latest Kokeshi Craftmen's handbook so you can see what he looked like. I've also included a shot of our one Kojima kokeshi, a beautiful little vase-shaped cherub with a peaceful smile and serene eyes.

A Kokeshi Set

A while ago (maybe late last year) Naoko received a very nice set of twelve used traditional kokeshis from someone who no longer wanted them. Back when they were originally purchased they were presumably very expensive, and each came in box that included a pamphlet about the kokeshi and its craftsman. I'm not sure how old this collection is -- maybe the 1990s -- and it was the creation of Sony Family Club. The Sony? Maybe. Anyway, it's pretty interesting to see a premium set like this, which includes some beautiful pieces all by different craftsmen. Since Naoko and I started collecting kokeshis I have not seen anything like this for sale, but with the on-going kokeshi boom it probably won't be long before it happens again. I have no idea how or why the craftsmen and kokeshi styles were chosen for this project, and it's odd that it's not a collection of each kokeshi type. Rather, it's something of a hodge podge, but that's not a criticism. But where's the Nambu kokeshi? Or the Hijiori? Anyway, I'm sure this was a great opportunity for enthusiasts who weren't able to make the trip up north to the kokeshi homeland.
I know that this is hardly a kokeshi adventure, but it is part of the kokeshi heritage so I had to tell you all about it.
A selection of the boxes which, loosely translated, say from top right to left: A Skilled Artisan's Article of Rare Beauty, "Traditional Kokeshi" Traveller's Journal, 12-Month Buying Club. The white rectangle tells the prefecture, type of kokeshi, and the artisan's name.
The unboxing! Each box included a kokeshi (of course), a pamphlet about the kokeshi, and directions on how to take care of the kokeshi.
A close up of the pamphlet. It's obvious that a lot of effort went into the pamphlets, which are a nice bit of kokeshi ephemera.
Here's a Togatta kokeshi 遠刈田系 by Mr. Asakura Koyo 朝倉光洋さん of Sendai. Mr. Asakura is still making kokeshis today.
This is a Naruko kokeshi by? I don't have the box for this one, and I can't read the signature on the bottom. Very nice though.
This is a Sakunami kokeshi 作並系こけし by Mr. Hayasaka Denkichi 早坂伝吉さん. He is not listed in the Traditional Kokeshi Artist File handbook, so he has either retired or has passed away.
A very handsome Yamagata kokeshi by Mr. Abe Masayoshi of Yamagata City. He's still making kokeshis and from what I can tell continues to make this particular design.
A Yajiro kokeshi 弥次郎系こけし by Mr. Niiyama Yoshinori 新山吉紀さん of Shiroishi City 白石市 in southern Miyagi Prefecture.  He's still young, alive, and well and making kokeshis. We have one of Mr. Niiyama's pieces, but it's a completely different style than this one. 
This one's a Zao kokeshi 蔵王系こけし by Mr. Okazaki Ikuo 岡崎幾雄さん of Zao Onsen in the mountains overlooking Yamagata City. We were just at his shop a few months ago, though we didn't get to meet him. It's interesting to see this design since Mr. Okazaki's kokeshis today look completely different, apart from the face.
A Naruko kokeshi by Mr. Sakurai Shoji 桜井昭二さん who is still making kokeshis today.
A handsome Yamagata kokeshi 山形系こけし by Mr. Kobayashi Kiyoshi 小林清さん of Yamagata City.
Obviously a Tsugaru kokeshi津軽系こけし by Mr. Sato Yoshiki 佐藤佳樹さん of Kuroishi City in Aomori Prefecture. He's still making kokeshis, though he's moved on from this design.
A beautiful Tsuchiyu kokeshi by Mr. Jinnohara Yukinori of Tsuchiyu Onsen in Fukushima Prefecture. In the summer of 2011 we ate tempura at his restaurant in the center of town.
A Kijiyama kokeshi 木地山系こけし by Mr. Kitayama Ken'ichi 北山賢一さん of Akita Prefecture. I've never seen a Kijiyama with this pattern before.
A fine Yajiro kokeshi 弥次郎系こけし by none other than Mr. Sato Seiko 佐藤誠孝さん whom we got to know last year at his temporary home on the side of a dormant volcano in Gunma Prefecture.

Ok, I kind of lied about not ever seeing of sets of kokeshis. About two weeks ago Naoko received an ad postcard for a special collection of seven exotic traditional kokeshis in a beautiful silk-lined box. The seven kokeshis have traditional heads and faces by some real masters (two of whom participated in the Sony set above), but take a look at the bodies! I'm not sure I like these too much, but I'll bet these will be snatched up quickly by some serious collectors. 

Here's the postcard, stuck to the fridge with two kokeshi magnets by Mrs. Honma Naoko.
A close up view of the collection.