Tuesday, January 29, 2013

December 2012 Adventure 4 12月の冒険4

On the final day of our big December kokeshi adventure we got up early, took a final dip in the onsen at our hotel, checked out, and then made our way to the Akiu Craft Park 秋保工芸の里 up the hill from Akiu Onsen 秋保温泉. It's the next valley over from Sakunami, so after a quick drive up and over some small mountains we were at our destination. We came here last year and found that it has a really nice park for the kids, so we brought the sleds and let them play in the snow for a while. I also had the urge to get an Akiu kokeshi 秋保系こけし from the Sato Kokeshi Shop, one of three kokeshi shops at the Craft Park.
Yes, it was cold on the day we were there.
The front of the Sato Kokeshi Shop.
There's a monument listing all of the craftsmen who have shops in the Akiu Craft Park. You can see that it's in Japanese, English, Korean, and Chinese.
Above I mentioned that I wanted to get an Akiu kokeshi, a type we declined to get during our last visit to this area. Astute readers will recall that there are only 11 types of kokeshis, and Akiu is not one of them. At some point they were lumped in with Togatta kokeshis, but Akius used to be considered a distinct kokeshi family back in the old days, and for good reason I think. As you'll see in the pictures below they have some distinct patterns that cannot be misconstrued as any other traditional kokeshi family.
See, the sign says "Akiu Kokeshi." It's not just me.
Some Sato Akiu kokeshis for sale. Unfortunately Mr. Sato was not in the shop when I was there.
Here's my Akiu by Mr. Sato Kazuo. It's about 10 inches, so medium-sized.  Those bold, dark blue stripes and the rectangles for hair say to me "Akiu kokeshi." 
This was a nice feature -- a signature on the back rather than the bottom.
This is the giveaway that it's an Akiu Kokeshi -- the "snake" on the top of the head which is actally the kanji 乙 (otsu). 
Ultimately it probably doesn't matter that Akiu kokeshis have been lumped in with Togattas, but I will personally refer to them as a twelfth family. There aren't too many craftsmen making Akius these days (six according to the Kamei guide), so they're pretty hard to find. As you can see in the photo above  the selection in the shop was fairly limited, though Mr. Sato's son Takenao has taken over the Akiu tradition so there should be Sato family Akiu kokeshis available well into the future. If you're in the Sendai area by all means pay this shop a visit and pick up an Akiu kokeshi!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

December 2012 Adventure 3 12月の冒険3

On the afternoon of 27 December we decided to venture into unknown kokeshi territory and visit Mr.Ogasawara Yoshio 小笠原義雄さん of Sendai. We've been to Sendai many times, so how hard would it be to find someone's kokeshi workshop there? As it turned out, it was quite hard indeed. The key to this adventure working out was two-fold: 1) Having a car, and 2) having an iPad with maps (or GPS). Honestly, this kind of trip without these two things would basically be out of the question. Naoko called Mr. Ogasawara to make sure that he was available and that it was ok to pay a visit (it was), which is important for you to do fellow kokeshi enthusiasts, since you don't want to show up and find out that nobody's at home!
Our hotel had wi-fi so I put the address into Google maps, clicked on directions, and we were on our way down out of the mountains. Sendai has a separate highway that connects from the Tohoku Expressway toward the coast and Sendai International Airport, and that's the road we were directed to take. As we zipped along we realized that we had been this way before during a trip back in April 2012 when we visited a portion of the 3-11 tsunami zone in Natori City 名取市. Sure enough, we could see areas from the highway that had clearly been inundated, so Mr. Ogasawara's house, which according to the map was located fairly close to the highway, must have had a very close shave on that day. I have included one photo of what we saw in Natori back in April so you can get a sense of the devastation that occurred just east of where Mr. Ogasawara lives.
This is what we saw on 10 April 2012. The area behind Lena was once a residential and business area. If you look in the far distance you can see the Sendai skyline, and there's also a bridge span. That bridge, part of the highway, marks the line where the tsunami stopped, which is the general location of Mr. Ogasawara's shop. 
Looking toward the tsunami zone as we hunted for Mr. Ogasawara's house.
Lost in thought about the 3-11 disaster, we were also starting to feel lost! We got off the highway as directed and things seemed confused. However, trusty Google Maps and the iPad came through and the physical roads were still matching up with what was on the screen. We went under the highway and the terrain suddenly became agricultural (rice fields), and after a few minutes we hit some housing. Now, as you may or may not know Japan doesn't really have street names, especially in housing areas, and yet this was definitely the general area we were supposed to be in. But like so many Japanese residential areas it was an incomprehensible maze, and we realized that it would be pointless to simply meander about. Google Maps was only able to get us about 97% of the way, so I parked in what looked to be a an empty lot while Naoko called Mr. Ogasawara for assistance. Almost as soon as I turned off the engine a grumpy looking woman burst out the front door of her house, obviously to tell us to "no parking," but we preempted her by explaining that we were looking for the Ogasawara's shop. "Oh yes, it's right around the corner." I guess it was good that parked where I shouldn't have since that gave us the final directions. Sure enough, when we got around the corner there was a sign on the street that said Ogawasawara Kokeshi-ya ("ya" means shop) 小笠原こけし屋, so we had finally made it! 
All of the streets looked just like this.
Ogasawara Kokeshi-ya. That's their house in the background -- a really nice place!
If we had come from the other direction we would have seen this large sign for the Ogasawara Kokeshi Shop.
After our long drive the kids scrambled out of the car in search of some fun, and immediately noticed a nice, long strip of ice on the street that looked good for sliding on. There was also a small park around on the next street, so thankfully the girls had some physical activities they could do. Good. Meanwhile, we went to the door and Mrs. Ogasawara Nobuko 小笠原信子さん, herself a former kokeshi craftsman, welcomed us in. It turns out that Mr. Ogasawara was out driving around looking for us, so we made ourselves comfortable in the guest room, which was also the kokeshi showroom, and gazed at Mr. Ogasawara's amazing handiwork. He is of the of the Togatta-style 遠刈田系 tradition, which he's been doing since 1969. Interestingly, Mr. Ogasawara got his start as a general wood craftsman back in 1952, which probably explains the exquiteness of many of his pieces, especially those that are hollow or have connecting pieces. 

A selection of beautiful Ogasawara kokeshis. Although the heads are the same, note the variety of body designs.
The showroom. You'll notice that the kokeshis are displayed on tansu 簞笥, which is fitting.
More kokeshis.
After a few minutes Mr. Ogasawara arrived, and soon there was tea and snacks on the table and we dug right in. I immediately asked how things went during the 11 March disaster, and it turns out that the tsunami reached within about 300 meters of the house. Yikes! Apparently the highway acted as a strong barrier and protected most houses on its western side. We also talked about kokeshis for awhile, and Mr. Ogasawara showed Naoko a couple of very interesting pieces, one of which was a beautiful ireko kokeshi 入れ子こけし. Ireko kokeshis are hollow kokeshis that typically contain smaller kokeshis, and in order to fit together properly I suspect that they take an advanced level of lathing skill to make. As soon as Naoko saw the ireko she said to me "I'm getting that!" It wasn't cheap, I have to admit, but it is a truly beautiful piece of workmanship. It's head is hollow in which there are ten tiny kokeshis. The body also comes apart and inside is a smaller ireko kokeshi with another small kokeshi inside that. 

Naoko's ireko kokeshi. The body also comes apart.

These cute figures are really Modern Kokeshis 近代こけし.
Some more kokeshis. 

Within the Togatta kokeshi world there are certain signature styles that individual makers have created. One in particular is this one by Mr. Ogasawara. It has a black and red-striped body, but if you look closely there's a pattern chiseled into the wood. I'm not sure how he does it, but the effect is extremely pleasing as you can see below. From what I can tell Mr. Ogasawara considers this his signature piece, and he even won an award for it back in 2006.
Mr. Ogasawara's special design.
The award certificate.

After chatting a while we finally decided to get the pieces we had been eyeing, including the ireko kokeshi that Naoko had fallen in love with. It was getting late and we had a long drive back to Sakunami ahead of us, so we thanked the Ogasawara's for their welcome and said a fond goodbye. It was, indeed, a good kokeshi adventure.
I don't want to forget to these kokeshis. They are Hina kokeshis for Girls Day. I didn't ask, but I presume they are Mr. Ogasawara's design.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

December 2012 Adventure 2 12月の冒険2

The river running next to the Hiraga workshop.
On day 2 of our big December adventure we slept in late, went into the onsen for a morning dip, and then headed back to the Hiraga's to say hello, view the kokeshis, and let the kids play in snow that accumulated over night. It wasn't as cold as the day before and we had beautiful blue skies with occasional flurries: Perfect weather for sledding and kokeshis, and I even got Mr. Hiraga to try out my old Burton Backhill snowboard!
Now that it was light out and we had rested, we finally had a good chance to examine all of Mr. Hiraga's new kokeshi creations closely. Again, he really does such fantastic, innovative things with little pieces of wood as you'll see in the pictures below. We had a nice morning chatting with the Hiragas and enjoying their hospitality. When lunch approached we walked across the bridge to a nearby ramen shop for lunch, and boy did that place have large bowls completely filled with noodles.
The view from our hotel's parking lot. We were right at the base of this small mountain.
Playing in the snow next to the Hiraga's workshop.
One of Mr. Hiraga's specialties are Christmas kokeshis. This giant-sized one was especially impressive. 
But wait, there's more! The giant Santa was hollow, and would perhaps be good for storing cookies or other kokeshis. Naoko was severely tempted by this piece, but in the end decided to wait.
We first were introduced to Mr. Hiraga's work by one of these onsen kokeshis, which actually has a small cloth towel on its head. What a great idea, especially since the kokeshi tradition is so thoroughly connected to hot bath towns. The black one with the eye patch is the Date Masamune kokeshi that I described in the previous blog.
Most kokeshi makes also make Darumas, all of which are different. This is Mr. Hiraga's version. 
More nice kokeshis. These were quite small.
A 10,000-yen giant Hiraga kokeshi. That's a complete bargain by way. Those others are medium-sized. 
A new tourist pamphlet for things to see and do in the Sakanami-Akiu area. The front cover was drawn by Mr. Hiraga, while the back was done by another of our favorite kokeshi makers, Mr. Suzuki Akira whom we went to see later in the day. This pamphlet shows how much kokeshis are a symbol of this part of Japan. 
One thing that Mr. Hiraga was selling in his shop that really caught my eye were these kokeshi-art calendars. He had five different ones on display, and they are a great way to keep track of the year.

Next blog: Back to the Akiu artists' village.

Friday, January 4, 2013

December 2012 Adventure 1 12月の冒険1

After a couple of months of no kokeshi trips Naoko, the girls and I were once again able to get back on the road for what would be a first-class Kokeshi Adventure. We got up early on 26 December, the day after Christmas, and hit the Tohoku Expressway. Destination: Sakunami Onsen 作並温泉 in the mountains west of Sendai! It was pretty smooth sailing until the Oizumi Interchange, after which we got stuck in heavy traffic because of an accident somewhere ahead. As you can see in the photo, the highway leading north out of the biggest city in the world only has two lanes, so even a little fender bender can snarl traffic for hours. Fortunately, the accident was beyond the next interchange we had to take, so after about 45 minutes of that mess we were truly on our way to Tohoku. Hurray!
Of course that's when we started seeing signs saying that there was heavy snow on the highway in the mountains, and that we would be required to put on our chains. Sheesh. I was expecting some snow, in fact hoping for it, but chains on the highway would easily add a couple of hours to our drive. Fortunately, by the time we got to the mountains the snow on the highway had melted and the worst we experienced were some flurries. Ironically, it was the traffic in the Tokyo that probably saved us from having to drive in the snow, so thank you very much heavy traffic! 
Snow flurries on the highway.
We got off the highway at the Sakunami Onsen exit, which was still about 45 minutes from where we were headed. On the way we stopped at a Sendai-style ramen shop for lunch, and then to the beautiful Sendai observatory and astronomy museum for a couple of hours. I highly recommend this place. Intestingly, when we told one of the staff members that we were going to Sakunami to hunt for kokeshis she was completely surprised. Even though she was from Sendai she had no idea about its kokeshi tradition. That was kind of sad, but we did our part to educate her so hopefully she'll get to Sakunami and find some kokeshis.
Sendai Observatory and Astronomy Museum -- highly recommended.
It was pretty cold at the observatory and the temperature was quickly dropping, so we decided to  start driving up to Sakunami at around 3:30. By that time the sun was already going down and we could see that it was snowing where we were heading. Sure enough, flurries began the further into the mountains we went, and the snow accumulated on the road to the point that I finally had to put on the chains. Oh well. And we were so close to our hotel too!
That's me putting chains on the minivan. You see, if you love kokeshis like we do then these are the lengths to which one will go when hunting for them. Note the sign in the background -- we were officially in Sakunami Onsen.
A close up of the sign. Those are Sakunami kokeshis welcoming us.
We've been to Sakunami Onsen a couple of times before, and once again decided to stay at Katakuri no Yado かたくりの宿, a small hotel that we like because it has a very nice onsen, and also because there's the option to not get meals with the room. If you want to see what it looks like click here. The no-food option is good because the price of the stay comes way down (the money saved can then be used for kokeshis of course), and also since we get to eat the kind of food we want. That might sound complicated, but in Japan that's how it is. So in the middle of a cold, blowing, snowy evening that was already -6 degrees Celsius we checked into the hotel. Ah, our hot bath awaited us.  
The hotel entry has four giant Sakunami kokeshis on display. Yet another reason to stay here.
But it was still early and we had some plans before we could jump into the bath. First, and most importantly, is that in the middle of that inclement weather we went to see kokeshi craftsman Mr. Hiraga Teruyuki 平賀輝幸さん in his small workshop. He was expecting us, and as you'll see in the photos below he has been busy creating lots of new kokeshi designs. It's really amazing what he comes up with, and we did indeed leave with some very nice pieces. Although it was somewhat late Mr. Hiraga and his mother welcomed us into the warm workshop area where there's a wood-burning stove that keeps the entire room nice and toasty. Soon snacks and tea were served and we were talking about kokeshis and life in Sakunami which can be difficult with the amount of snow they get. While the girls ran around outside in the snow we had a nice time chatting and viewing all the new kokeshis that Mr. Hiraga had created.
A nighttime view of the Hiraga Kokeshi Workshop.  
A box of kokeshi heads soon to become full-fledged kokeshis.
Naoko happily munching on a cracker.
"Sakunami kokeshis: On Sale Now."
A cute Hiraga kokeshi.
A number of large Hiraga kokeshis. The one in the front is a kokeshi version of Sendai's medieval hero Date Masamune 伊達政宗. This kokeshi is fantastic.
A couple of years ago Naoko bought a kokeshi sitting in an onsen by Mr. Hiraga. He recently took that a step further with a kokeshi family enjoying a bath. Really creative!
This says "Mini Santa," so I think the label was wrong. It's obviously an historical person, but who?
Hiraga kokeshi version of another historical figure, Iroha Hime, or Princess Iroha, the eldest daughter of Date Masamune who we saw above.
Oh yes, there were lots of Christmas and Santa kokeshis. I'll talk about them further in an upcoming blog.
We finally said goodnight to the Hiragas and headed to our favorite Korean bar-b-q restaurant up the hill. We had a delicious meal and were really happy to be back in Sakunami Onsen. After dinner we returned to our hotel and, at long last, we could finally have a relaxing soak in the onsen.
In the Korean bar-b-q restaurant. That haze is actually smoke from one of the tabletop grills nearby.  But we persevered and had a great dinner.
So that ended day one of our latest kokeshi adventure. Next up: Sakunami Onsen, day 2.