Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sato Masahiro Kokeshi 佐藤正廣こけし

Tsunami's aftermath near the shore.
Our April Sendai adventure was more than just a hunt for kokeshis. Besides our time at Togatta and Sakunami, we visited an absolutely gorgeous planetarium and astronomy center in western Sendai, drove part way up Mt. Zao (which was still covered with snow), visited some old acquaintances, sampled authentic Italian pizza and Korean bar-b-q, tramped around the old Sendai castle grounds, luxuriated in onsens, and even went down to one of the coastal areas devastated by last year's tsunami (truly unbelievable). In fact, we probably spent more time doing non-kokeshi things than the other way around, which was just fine. I'll say this: Sendai is a beautiful, world-class city, and it's recovering amazingly well from the disaster. If you can swing a trip to Sendai and Miyagi Prefecture, by all means do so!
The final leg of the kokeshi-centric piece of our adventure was a second visit to Mr. Hiraga's kokeshi workshop (see previous blog). Right before that we spent a couple hours with Togatta-style 遠刈田系 kokeshi master craftsman Mr. Sato Masahiro 佐藤正廣さん, the subject of today's blog.
We actually went to his workshop on a whim, which I thought we should try after the odd experience of the Kokeshi Village こけしの里 in Togatta Onsen (discussed in an upcoming blog), as well as the depressing atmosphere of the tsunami zone. As it turned out this was an excellent decision. We actually had a connection with Mr. Sato, having met his son Mr. Sato Yasuhiro 佐藤康広さん at a Miyagi traditional crafts fair in Sendai back in December (see blog). As noted above the Sato's (just one family among dozens and dozens of Satos in the traditonal kokeshi world by the way) make Togatta kokeshis, and their work is some of the nicest I've seen in that branch: Really fine lathing, design, and facial expressions.
Two small (4-inch) kokeshis by the son Sato Yasuhiro.
Fortunately the elder Sato was at home, which we finally discovered after driving around in circles for some time. We had his address and knew the general area, but simply could not find his shop that was hidden away somewhere. It was fairly maddening! Advice to those who would  like to visit the Sato's: Once you see the sign in the photo below go down the driveway to the cement plant. The road will then circle back underneath that driveway to a couple of houses and agricultural fields along the Hirose River 広瀬川. That's where the Sato's workshop is located.
Mr. Sato graciously had us in even though we had dropped by unexpectedly. Naoko and he proceded to talk about kokeshis for a good bit while I brought the girls down to the river for a little exercise and fresh air. As it turned out Mr. Sato is also a kokeshi collector and enthusiast, which seems to be fairly rare among kokeshi makers. That was definitely a pleasant surprise since we could talk to him about both making and collecting kokeshis. While we were chatting Mr. Sato pulled out a couple of older pieces from his collection and explained their historical significance. Really interesting!
Overall, this was a great visit and we left with some beautiful pieces by both father and son. I have a feeling that when we return to Sendai we'll definitely be seeing the Satos again.
This small sign at the top of some stairs was the only indication that we were in the right area. But where's the shop?
The Sato's house was not easy to find.
A selection of kokeshis and other items for sale.
Mr. Sato was making these into trophies for a Sendai bike race.
A completed Sendai bike-race trophy.
A very clever brush holder.
Mr. Sato and Naoko in the painting area discussing kokeshi history. Cozy and pleasant.
Recently completed small kokeshis.
Naoko and the girls with a nice ejiko えじこ kokeshi that subsequently became part of our collection.
A variety of Sato kokeshis.
A very large kokeshi by Sato Masahiro. It's hard to tell the size, so I put a Star Wars action figure next to it for reference. It really is big.
Naoko's ejiko by the elder Sato.
It's a perfect place for our top collection.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Return to Sakunami Onsen 作並温泉に戻ります

During our recent Sendai kokeshi adventure in April we returned to Sakunami Onsen to visit our friend Mr. Hiraga Teruyuki 平賀輝幸さん whom we had visited last December. Naoko and I are both big fans of his work, and the fact that he's one of only a handful of craftsmen that makes Sakunami-type 作並系 kokeshis is, well, very interesting. We actually went to his shop twice during this adventure, and if you've ever been to Sendai then you know well that Sakunami is somewhat out of the way, so we must really be dedicated fans! And it was worth it. Mr. Hiraga, a true gentleman, welcomed us right in to warm up at his wood-burning stove while we talked kokeshis and had some snacks (after that we went back to Ichinobo Onsen 一の坊温泉 located right next door, one of the nicest onsens I've had the pleasure of entering). Naoko was really excited to see some of his miniature pieces of which we bought a selection that can be seen in the photo below. We also a got one of his large-size Sakunamis, as well as one by his father Mr. Hiraga Ken'ichi 平賀謙一さん who passed away in 2007. Interestingly, the shop still has a few left by Ken'ichi, as well as some by the grandfather Mr. Hiraga Kenjiro 平賀謙次郎さん who passed away earlier in 2012. Overall another great kokeshi adventure that can't be recommended highly enough, and I am absolutely certain that we'll be back to visit Mr. Hiraga and Sakunami Onsen sometime in the near future.

Some kokeshis still available at the shop created by Teruyuki's father and grandfather.
An innovative use of a kokeshi head. It's a back massager as I recall, which as you can see has a "pillow" for when not in use.
Our piece by the father Hiraga Ken'ichi. Not the tear-drop shaped nose,  a style that Teruyuki has not continued.
This is the large Hiraga that we bought (for a good price, too) with a more contemporary look that sports rosy cheeks of which I like a great deal.  That's a Stars Wars action figure for size reference by the way.
Tiny Hiragas that Naoko ordered, and whose size can be contrasted with the action figure in the background. These are really nice, and are perfect miniatures of their larger counterparts.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Kokeshi Dolls こけしドール

As you might have noticed I do not call kokeshis "kokeshi dolls." As far as I am concerned -- self-appointed expert that I am -- kokeshis should simply be called "kokeshis" since they are their own category of thing. To be fair they should be loosely associated with dolls, but retain their unique name. After all, Japanese enthusiasts just call them "kokeshis," so why shouldn't non-Japanese enthusiasts do the same? By way of example regarding the trials of what to do with truly foreign words that lack equivalents in English, I recall reading a 1957 translation of Natsume Soseki's 1914 novel Kokoro こころ in which the translator decided to convert such words as futon into "bedding," and yukata into a very vague "summer robe." It was jarring to see this, since "bedding" could be anything (sheets, blankets, pillows), and "summer robe" just doesn't capture the flavor of Japan's wonderful yukata tradition. While the translator probably felt he was doing his readers a favor 55 years ago when Japanese traditions were still largely unknown in the West, he would have done them a bigger favor by bringing those readers more fully into the Japanese world through precise and authentic terminology. So, by not calling kokeshis "dolls" I am hoping to establish that kokeshis are an art form distinct from other dolls.
Clothed kokeshis. An Akiu 秋保 on the left and a Togatta 遠刈田 on the right.
That said, my two daughters would probably beg to differ. Ever since Naoko and I started collecting them in earnest I have occasionally found kokeshis around the house with their heads on small pillows and laying under blankets, participating in tea parties, and wearing clothing. In other words, they are being used just like any other doll, so despite my argument above maybe they really are dolls! To reinforce this the girls recently received some large, antique traditional and modern kokeshis from an older collector we visited up in Sendai, and as soon as we returned home these kokeshis were wearing dresses and were part of play time. This could be analyzed in various ways, not least of which is that kids obviously don't need overly complicated toys to have fun. It also reinforces what kokeshi scholars have discovered: That kokeshis were originally play things for kids up in the remote mountain areas of Tohoku. Our kids, then, are continuing that tradition.
This blog shows what my girls did with their new kokeshis. Enjoy!
Three antique modern kokeshis.
This is a very nice Tsuchiyu kokeshi 土湯系 by Mr. Jinnohara Yukinori 陣野原幸紀さん from our collection. Our daughters probably understand the real purpose of kokeshis better than the adult collectors.