Sunday, April 29, 2012

Miyagi-Zao Kokeshi Kan みやぎ蔵王こけし館

On April 9th as part of our recent adventure to Sendai we visited the Miyagi-Zao Kokeshi Kan (Museum) which lies along the Matsu River 松川 just across the Togatta kokeshi bridge (see previous blog). The area it's located in is truly beautiful, the facility is handsome, and it's filled with thousands, if not tens of thousands of kokeshis of all types. There's also an enormous gift shop selling local kokeshis and a huge variety of handmade traditional wooden Japanese toys. In other words, the Miyagi-Zao Kokeshi Museum has all the ingredients to be an awesome destination for connoisseurs. So why was I left feeling somewhat disappointed?
The museum building. The day we went the parking lot was completely empty.
I hesitate to be too critical because the fact that this place exists at all is amazing. However, apart from the area one first enters with its nicely spaced kokeshis on a tatami-mat display, the collection generally feels cobbled together without any particular meaning. When I pointed this out to Naoko she said that's exactly what it is -- the museum's collection is made up of basically of what were once private collections, displayed in row after row of glass cases in which kokeshis are crammed without rhyme or reason. Nevertheless there were definitely highlights in the museum that I have described with the photos below. So in the end is this a recommended kokeshi adventure? Absolutely!

In case you weren't sure what's inside the kokeshi kan...
When first entering the building after paying the nominal entry fee (200 yen?) one sees these two pieces of art. The one on the left is an oil painting by Mr. Kaneko Kazu 金子一さん, and the one on the right is a made up of 64 tiles. Both are large scale, and both are spectacular pieces of kokeshi-themed art. 

The kokeshi collection starts here with this accessible display of large-scale kokeshis from throughout Tohoku.
The initial display continued. Really nice.
After the above the displays turn into this. Great if your goal is to just see thousands of kokeshis.
Baskets of small kokeshis on display.
Some nice Abe kokeshis.

The rest area in the back -- very pleasant.
One of the Miyagi-Zao Kokeshi Kan's highlights was a display of traditional kokeshi making equipment. Another room showed the modern crafting process, from choosing wood in the drying yard all the way to a completed kokeshi. Through the use of photos, wood, and tools this was extremely well done.
Traditional kokeshi-making equipment.
The kokeshi making process, explained well in this extremely well-done display.

The final outcome.
A display of kokeshi books.
The Togatta Kokeshi wing. The photos above are of kokeshi craftsmen from the local area.
We met the craftsman on the left, Ms. Sato Ryoko 佐藤良子さん, at her shop in the Kokeshi Village こけしの里 on the hill above the Kokeshi Kan. I'll talk about that in an upcoming blog.
The well-stocked gift shop. You could easily spend hundreds of dollars here and go home with a fantastic collection.
Kokeshi key chains.
Small and large hand-made yo-yos.
Kokeshis by Mr. Sato Tadashi 佐藤忠さん. His were especially handsome, and I really liked the bell-shaped ones in this shop though I didn't get one for some reason.

Lots of kokeshis for sale.
More by Sato Tadashi. I got the black one on the left. I think it's a real beauty.
Kokeshis by Mr. Sakuda Koichi 作田孝一さん. We bought one of his, though it's not in this photo.
What's a kokeshi museum without a giant kokeshi? I love these things.
The Matsu River right in front of the Kokeshi Kan. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mystery Kokeshi 神秘的なこけし

Mystery kokeshi.
At this stage of being a kokeshi enthusiast I'm finding there are fewer and fewer suprises and mysteries about kokeshis. This is both a good thing and a, well, not "bad" really, but less good thing. The good side is that we've really improved our knowledge about traditional kokeshis, which has been a triumph of sorts. And when I say "we," I really mean Naoko who can easily recognize all eleven types, their sub-types, where they come from, the craftsman who made it, including sometimes those who have passed away. It's pretty impressive actually. The less good side to our increased knowledge is that we are no longer newbies for whom everything about the world of traditional kokeshis is fresh and exciting, an adventure. In fact we're probably reaching an early stage of maturity as kokeshi fans.
Now I'm certainly not claiming expert knowledge at this point, and while Naoko is well beyond my level, there are enthusiasts in Japan with decades of experience and collections consisting of thousands of kokeshis. They, then could probably help us with our recent kokeshi mystery.
On Sunday, 22 April we attended the monthly Friends of Kokeshi meeting in downtown Tokyo, and as usual came home with a couple of nice kokeshis. The most interesting kokeshi we acquired was this fantastic piece -- an antique from 1984 with a very unique head shape -- of which we aren't sure its type or who made it. Naoko thinks it might be a Togatta based on its body design, but of course Togatta kokeshis typically have a very distinctive head pattern made up of red brush strokes. Not only is the head shape unusual, but so is its face which is striking and funny, and maybe even kind of angry. Anyway, we should be able to find out quickly what kind it is and who made it, but meanwhile it's fun to have a mystery kokeshi to think about.
Believe it or not there are people in Japan who look like this. But what is this kokeshi so mad about?
We know that our mystery kokeshi was made in May 1984. The signature, however, is unknown... for now.
Though not a mystery I did want to show another kokeshi we acquired at the meeting. This is a Yajiro type 弥次郎系 by Mr. Sato Yoshiaki 佐藤慶明さん of Shiroishi City in Miyagi Prefecture, and while I don't normally care for Yajiros (apart from those made by our friends the Satos in Fukushima) I think this piece is quite exceptional, in particular the face, but also the balance of lines, color usage, and hair. A very impressive kokeshi indeed.

This is a nice face, with a Modigliani nose.
Yajiros are easy to spot, especially by the top of the head.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Togatta Onsen 遠刈田温泉

Mt Zao. And look what else!
Well, we did it again! From 8-11 April Naoko, the girls, and I headed back up north to the Sendai area in order to get away from Tokyo and have another kokeshi adventure. It was loads of fun, and of course we picked up loads of kokeshis. I'll provide specifics about the trip and what we saw in some upcoming blog entries, with today just focusing on our arrival.
Since Sendai is about a 5.5-hour drive from our home we got up quite early Sunday morning in order to hit the open road before everyone else did. That tactic worked and we made good time on the Tohoku Expressway. Our first goal was Togatta Onsen 遠刈田温泉, which kokeshi scholars believe might be the birthplace of traditional kokeshis. Whether or not that is true Togatta is indeed a true kokeshi town like Naruko Onsen, and it's a must-visit location for any kokeshi enthusiast. Togatta, at 330 meters above sea level is part-way up to Mt. Zao 蔵王山, a major ski resort on the border between Miyagi Yamagata Prefectures. We had spectacular views of the mountain the whole time we were there, which made the trip that much better. As with previous trips, our goal was to find nice onsens as well as kokeshi makers. We stayed on the ninth floor of a huge Daiwa resort hotel which had reasonable rates, WiFi in the room, and a fantastic view of Mt. Zao. It also had a nice onsen in the basement, which felt great after our long drive. The only downside to staying in the Togatta area is that it's right on the edge of the northern reaches of the Fukushima Power Plant radiation disaster. That is, if someone were to pull out a Geiger counter in this area he might get some readings above background. As we all know low-level radiation like that is pretty harmless, but it didn't make me feel any better when a man we chatted with said he wouldn't recommend eating the mushrooms from local farmers. Therefore, I was a bit wary of the kids touching things the whole time we were in the area.
Togatta's kokeshi bridge.
Nevertheless, we kept a stiff upper lip and carried on with our kokeshi adventure, passing over the town's kokeshi bridge (see photo) and immediately stopping at a shop simply called Traditional Kokeshis 伝統こけし. It was not a kokeshi maker's shop, but rather a shop selling all kinds of traditional kokeshis owned by a fellow enthusiast so it was filled with fanatstic examples of kokeshis from throughout Tohoku. While Naoko examined the shop I took the girls outside to see the kokeshi bridge, and we found that there was also a kokeshi pedestrian bridge lined with small steel Togatta-style kokeshis -- really cool. There was also a terrific view of Mt. Zao and the river from the bridge, so I was able to get some nice pictures. We bought a nice kokeshi and got some further information about the town's kokeshi opportunities of which there were plenty!
Next Blog: The Togatta Kokeshi Village.  
Traditional Kokeshi shop.
Interior view.
Naoko was probably thinking "Our house is starting to look like this...."
A bunch of Togattas.
I found this one in the corner of the shop. This is a perfect kokeshi face. 
The pedestrian kokeshi bridge. Can you see why it's an official kokeshi bridge?
Because of these little guys, which line the entire bridge.
Togatta's main street's convenience store. That is a giant Tengu 天狗 mask up there.
A souvenir shop. If you look closely there's a sign that says "Traditional Kokeshis."
Right in the center of town is a beautiful public onsen, and it has a free outdoor foot bath.  The day we arrived was sunny but surprisingly chilly and wintery, so about 20 minutes of sticking our feet in here warmed us up enough so that we could go and get a tofu-milk ice cream cone! The upper section of the foot bath was probably 10-15 degrees hotter than the lower section, and nobody could keep their feet in it.

Zao Kokeshi Doll Museum... Yes! I'll blog about that soon.
The town's mascot character. What else but a happy kokeshi soaking in an onsen.
The street to Mt. Zao. The two-story gray building on the left was a closed kokeshi shop.
These kokeshi-shaped signs were all over the town. More evidence of Togatta's kokeshi-based identity.