Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Summer Kokeshi Adventure at Zao 1 蔵王で夏のこけし冒険

A ski lift at Zao, waiting for snow.
Last November Naoko, the girls, our good friends and I went to Zao Onsen 蔵王温泉 up in mountains outside of Yamagata City where we visited a kokeshi maker's shop. It was a great adventure, but for some reason I forget to mention it in this blog. Well, during our recent summer kokeshi adventure we returned to Zao, so now I'm going to write about that amazing place.
Zao Onsen, according to banners hanging around the town (and the town's web site), was first developed 1,900 years ago. I'm not sure how they could know this since writing didn't exist in Japan at that time, but nonetheless that's amazing. So, Zao is known for its ancient and amazing hot baths (the whole town smells like boiled eggs, there's steam everywhere, and the drains running throughout the town are bright yellow from the sulfur), its great skiing during the winter, and, of course, its kokeshis. In fact, for those of you who are new to the kokeshi world Zao even has its own family: Zao-Takayu 蔵王高湯系. When we went there on 13 July we found two kokeshi makers' shops that were open.
Mr. Saito's shop.
The first place was we went was a souvenir shop and inn on the main street of town that Naoko heard about somewhere. We walked down the hill from where we had parked, crossed over the river that carries away all of Zao's hot water, and finally found the shop. It's owned by 83-year old craftsman Mr. Saito Takeo 斎藤健男さん, a third generation kokeshi maker. Unfortunately, Mr. Saito wasn't in, but there were many of his kokeshis to look at. Mr. Saito's son was there setting out some cherry jam he had just made. Though a jam maker, he told us that he is not a kokeshi craftsman, so it looks like the family tradition will come to an end with his father. Anyway, we took a good look at the kokeshis and as you can see in the pictures there were many available. I have to admit that by this point in our kokeshi adventure I was not as excited as usual, perhaps because the designs weren't all that striking. But it was a kokeshi shop, so that's good enough for me.
Naoko examining wares.
Some of Mr. Saito's pieces.
Another view.
These three-headed ones were innovative, but in the end we didn't get one.
A photo of Mr. Saito at work. It would've been nice to meet him.
We got the kokeshi on the bottom with the rape flower design. Quite nice.
I'm going to save the other Zao kokeshi shop we visited for the next installment, but I did want to mention a very interesting place that we walked past while strolling around Zao: A hotel called Kokeshi no Yado Shosenkaku こけしの宿招仙閣. Yes, it's a kokeshi-themed hotel, and even though our plans were to stay just for lunch and then head back to Tokyo, I was really tempted to try and get a room! Alas, we couldn't do it this time but I think you'll agree that for kokeshi lovers this would be a great place to stay.
Kokeshi no Yado.
A closer view. Those are kokeshis in the entrance.
Double, double toil and trouble. Bubbling hot springs like this are all over Zao. This one's right across the street from the Kokeshi Hotel. 
Before heading back to Tokyo it started to pour rain right as we were searching for an onsen. The locals told us to go to a small, public hot bath that was apparently Zao's original spring. So we did, paying on the honor system. It was, bar none, the hottest onsen I've ever been in, and I had to poor buckets of freezing water on myself just to be able to go in for a couple minutes. It was fantastic, but too hot.
That little brown building is the public onsen. The water rises right up from beneath your feet.
Another of Zao's springs on the side of a parking lot.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Summer Kokeshi Trip 12 July 夏のこけし冒険7月12日

Naoko found this kokeshi display in the station.
On 11 July we bid farewell to beautiful Aomori Prefecture and headed south to our final destination: Yamagata City 山形市! We arrived there in late afternoon, drove around in circles and got lost for a bit, found a nice river for the girls to play in, and then headed to our hotel right next to the train station. We went out for yakiniku 焼肉 (Korean bar-b-q) for dinner, which was outstanding, and then walked around the train station area. In Japan the stations and their environs are safe, like the rest of the country. This is a vast difference from America, where train stations tend to be some of the worst parts of the city, or at least it was like that when I was a kid. Maybe things have changed...
That night, as we were walking through the upper concourse of the Yamagata station we came across a kokeshi display showing a selection of Yamagata-type 山形系 and Zao-Takayu-type 蔵王高湯系 kokeshis. Yes, we were once again in a kokeshi hot spot.
Inside the magnificent Yamagata station. The vendor was selling small boxes of perfect Yamagata cherries for 2,000 yen, or about $25.
The next morning we got up early and headed back to the station to find a shop called Shobido 尚美堂 that Naoko had read about. Shobido is located on the station's first floor, and after working our way through various food-souvenir stands we finally found the shop. Shobido is really just a souvenir shop that pretty much sells locally made crafts, and of course there were traditional kokeshis to be had. See the photos below for details.
Where is Shobido?
Shobido at last. Yes, those are modern kokeshis from Gunma on the back wall. Not exactly a Yamagata craft.
This was the extent of the kokeshis at Shobido. Fortunately, the pieces for sale were high quality and fairly priced. We immediately recognized ones by craftsmen whom we'd visited in the area.
Kokeshis from Akita, Miyagi, and Yamagata.
Zao and Yamagata kokeshis. We got one of the yellow ones from Yamadera way in the back. We met the maker, Mr. Ishiyama Kazuo last year. If you'd like to read about that adventure here's the link:
This really wasn't much of a kokeshi adventure, but it was a good way to start the day. It would also be a perfect place to pick up some traditional kokeshis if one wasn't able to make it to a craftsman's workshop.
However, as we'll see in an upcoming blog we did do a bit more kokeshi hunting before heading back to Tokyo.
Shobido had this nice little display.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Summer Kokeshi Adventure Day 8 夏こけし冒険8日目

Our Hokkaido-bound ferry. No kokeshis.
It's now July 10th on our vacation, but don't worry -- I haven't left anything out in terms of kokeshis. Halfway through our trip we hopped on a car ferry at Aomori port and went to Hokkaido for three days. A great trip and highly recommended for anyone who hasn't been there, but I have to say that there wasn't a kokeshi in sight. Actually, there used to be a number of traditional kokeshi makers in Hokkaido, but today there might only be one left. Of course Hokkaido does not have it's own style, so I'm not sure what can be said about kokeshis from that island.
A 400-year old onsen -- older than the U.S.
Viewing Mt. Hakkoda. There was still snow on its peak.
We got up early, went and picked up some kokeshis we had ordered from Ms. Honma Naoko (whom we had visited a few days earlier) on the way, and then zipped through Shichinohe where we stopped briefly at the ruins of an old castle. After that it was up and over Mt Hakkoda 八甲田山, pausing briefly at a 400-year old onsen (I wanted to go, but the timing didn't work out), and also stopping for lunch somewhere in the middle of the mountain at Sukayu Onsen. We had perfect weather the entire drive by the way -- lucky us. After a couple of hours winding our way through mountain roads we were once again in Kuroishi and made a quick stop at the Kokeshi Kan to say hello. I'm glad we did, because master craftsman Abo Muchihide 阿保六知秀さんwas at the lathe, so we got to see him working and even purchased a beautiful purple Tsugaru kokeshi that he had created. His work is truly exquisite. We visited Mr. Abo at his workshop last year, and a number of his pieces happily populate our home. We said a final farewell to everyone at the Kokeshi Kan and then drove down the valley toward our final destination.  

Welcome to Kuroishi. When you see this monument coming out of the mountains you know you're in kokeshi territory.

Naoko and Mr. Abo at the Kokeshi Kan.
Some Abo creations. Perfect, beautiful work with a very recognizable face style.
These are their way to becoming kokeshis, I think.
As I talked about last year, the Tsugaru traditional crafts center is right next to the Kokeshi Kan. These large kokeshi lanterns are all over the place.
Here's the shop where the kokeshi lanterns are made. If we lived up in Aomori I'm sure we'd get one for our home.
Our ultimate goal for the day was to visit a lesser-known Tsugaru kokeshi craftsman named Mr. Kitayama Moriharu 北山盛治さん who lives about 15 minutes from the Kokeshi Kan. For reasons that are still puzzling to me Mr. Kitayama's work is not displayed at the Kokeshi Kan, and he is something of an outsider in the kokeshi community though he is indeed listed in the recent Kamei Museum's handbook of kokeshi craftsman. Anyway, Naoko had made an appointment for a visit but because I kept stopping the car on our drive through the mountains we were running a bit late. It turns out that Mr. Kitayama was up at his farm in the hills where he raises carp, so for him to come and meet us required some coordination and for us to be on time! Yet it all worked out ok, and soon we were at his home chatting with him and his wife about kokeshis, life in Kuroishi, the Tsugaru dialect, and so forth.
The Kitayama's shop: Traditional crafts and bicycles!
Mr. Kitayama and Naoko talking kokeshis. That blue face in the background is his creation.
As a Tsugaru kokeshi craftsman Mr. Kitayama follows certain strictures within that family of kokeshis, such as body shape, use of Daruma faces, and striping patterns. However, he has one characteristic that I believe is completely original, which is the kokeshi's hair falling down into its eyes. It's very appealing, and I'm pretty sure that if you find a kokeshi like that then it is a Kitayama piece.  
Some Kitayama kokeshis. Note the hair.

I especially like the striped ones.
Mr. Kitayama showing the girls a mandolin from his collection. The kokeshis in the foreground are the ones we bought.
I brought the kids to this nearby river while Naoko chatted with the Kitayamas. Most of Aomori is open and sort of wild like this.
This was in the Kitayama's living room. Mr. Kitayama, you see, was an artist for the big Nebuta floats in Aomori. All I can say is wow.
This, too, is Mr. Kitayama's work. A true artist.
On the way back from the Kitayama's house we drove up to Nuruyu Onsen 温湯温泉 (where we stayed last year) hoping to have dinner followed by a dip in an onsen. We didn't see any restaurants open, but we did go the Tsurunoyu Onsen 鶴の湯温泉 in the center of town. It's a beautiful facility, and man, the water was hot! After that we headed out of the valley and found a very authentic Taiwanese restaurant for dinner. It was a delicious end to a great day, and of course a great kokeshi adventure.
Nuruyu Onsen sign. You have to love the sticker at the top. Yep, it's a kokeshi town.
Tsuru no yu Onsen.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

New Kokeshi Book 新しいこけしの本

At this point I thought I'd take a quick break from our great summer kokeshi adventure and mention a new kokeshi book that I have found to be absolutely fantastic: 武井武雄のこけし (my translation is The Kokeshis of Takei Takeo) by kokeshi uber-enthusiast and supporter Cochae. It came out in February 2012 and is about the Japanese artist Mr. Takei Takeo who was an illustrator, a bookmaker, a poet, a children's book author and artist, and even a woodblock print-maker. At some point in the 1920s he began to develop a deep interest in traditional kokeshis as both a subject for art and design motifs, as well as objects for collecting. Apparently, like so many of us, he was smitten by those little wooden dolls. Over his fruitful career Mr. Takei produced a large body of woodblock prints of kokeshis, and its these prints that make up the bulk of the book. What's pleasing to me is that over the last year or so I had seen his work here and there and was very impressed, but had no idea whose art it was. Therefore, this book was especially timely for me.
The Kokeshis of Takei Takeo is 2,200 yen and worth every penny. I found it in a local bookstore, but it's available at Amazon Japan and elsewhere on line in Japan, and may also be available overseas. Of course it's in Japanese, but my dear fellow foreigners, do not let that scare you away. Like the kokeshis themselves these beautiful prints will speak to you, so it's not essential to be able to read Japanese to appreciate this work. Overall Cochae has done a great job with this book, and hopefully we'll see more like it about the world of kokeshi art. Also nice would be an English-language version. Maybe some day...
I took a few photos of the book below, and there are more at the Cochae web site:

Some of Mr. Takei's earliest kokeshi art.

Cochae included a full reproduction of this small 1946 booklet by Mr. Takei as an insert. It was done in English for the American occupation forces, but only 300 were made and all were immediately snatched up by Japanese kokeshi enthusiasts. It's now an extremely valuable book -- I saw one for sale on line for more than 50,000 yen!
Cochae seems to have reproduced the booklet exactly as the original. This alone probably makes it worth the price of the book.
A photo of one of Mr. Takei's kokeshi art books.