Saturday, August 4, 2012

Summer Kokeshi Adventure Day 2 夏こけし冒険二日目

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
On 3 July we made the pilgrimage to Tsugaru 津軽 in western Aomori Prefecture, birthplace of the Tsugaru-type kokeshi 津軽系こけし and home of Tsugaru Kokeshi Museum 津軽こけし館 that I wrote about last year (and will provide an update in an upcoming blog). Tsugaru, beautiful and full of tradition, is a must-visit for all kokeshi enthusiasts.
We visited this area last June, but unfortunately had to skip a small town called Owani Onsen 大鰐温泉 which lies about 20 minutes south of Kuroishi City 黒石市. Like Kuroishi, Owani is also a kokeshi town with its own unique style that is lumped in with Tsugaru kokeshis.
An overlook of Lake Towada.
The drive took us west past through overgrown and twisting mountain roads around the rim of Lake Towada 十和田湖, an enormous crater lake. We had pleasant weather, and soon were heading into Owani with the goal of meeting 82-year old Mr. Shimatsu Seiichi 嶋津誠一さん, the last kokeshi maker in Owani. Typical of these journies, Mr. Shimatsu's house was nestled in a residential area that made locating it something of a chore. However, I've come to accept the hunt for kokeshi makers' workshops as much a part of the adventure as meeting the craftsmen and buying kokeshis! After meandering a bit on unmarked streets we finally found Mr. Shimatsu's workshop, parked on the grounds of a nearby Buddhist temple, and went for a visit.
Mr. Shimatsu was born in 1930, became a woodworker in 1947, and started making kokeshis in 1955. At one point there were ten kokeshi makers in Owani, but but now it's just him. Mr. Shimatsu's workshop is connected to his house and looks really, really old, just the sort of atmosphere one would expect of an old-time kokeshi workshop.

Mr. Shimatsu's workshop. His house is connected on the right.
Naoko went inside first while I parked the car, and when I finally went in through the front door of Mr. Shimatsu's house I was surpirsed to find that we were inside his "shop." That is, he uses his genkan 玄関 (entry area) to lay out his kokeshis for customers. As you can see in the photos below, on the day we visited he had about 35-40 kokeshis of various Owani-style designs available in cardboard boxes. If you know what a standard Tsugaru kokeshi looks like then it's something of a surprise to realize that these, too, are Tsugaru kokeshis. If I could generalize about Owani kokeshis, they tend to have a solid black head of hear with a bowl cut, with simple, even primitive faces, and a straight body. The most striking paint scheme is an almost solid yellow with a couple of stripes. His other Owanis have more regular striping, but with Daruma (Dharma) faces or Neputa/Nebuta ねぷた faces painted on the bottom in the manner of other Tsugaru kokeshis. Finally, Mr. Shimatsu also paints one with iris, which I believe is also an Owani tradition.

Naoko inspecting the kokeshis.
We weren't in Owani very long, but we did get to chat with Mr. and Mrs. Shimatsu for a bit. One thing I can say for certain is that he definitely has a Tsugaru accent!
Note the variety of Owanis that Mr. Shimatsu makes.
More Owani kokeshis.
Looking into Mr. Shimatsu's workshop. I didn't ask but I'll he's been making kokeshis in here for a long, long time.
This manhole cover was right outside Mr. Shimatsu's house.  Yes, that's an alligator holding skies, which isn't so strange if you know two things about Owani. One, it's a major ski area. Two, "Owani" litterally means "Big Alligator." Now you know.
 So, what did we bring home from the workshop of Mr. Shimatsu? We actually didn't bring home a large haul since it was still the beginning of our trip. I kind of wish I had gotten one of his larger yellow pieces, but maybe next time. The pictures below show what we purchased, and they have added nicely to our existing collection. By the way, as is typical with Tsugaru kokeshis they are sold in plastic wrappers and it's recommended to keep them wrapped for a while. As a result there's a bit of reflection from the plastic, but I think you can still see them well enough.
This one's tiny, and is very appealing in its simplicity.
"Shimatsu" on the left, and "Owani" on the right.
A beautiful piece with Neputa/Nebuta art. You see this style of art everywhere in Tohoku, including on kites, but especially in August during the Neputa and Nebuta festivals.
Close up. Beautiful.
Bottom of the Neputa kokeshi.
Here's one with a very bold Daruma face.
Close up of the kokeshi's face. Simple eyes, eyebrows, nose and mouth.
To me this is an architypal Owani kokeshi, as I don't think there are any other styles with a full yellow body. 
Close up of the face. Man, this is fantastic!
Here's one with the iris design.

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