Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tendo Kokeshi 天童のこけし

Ok, this is it. I have finally made it to the last blog installment of our great summer 2011 kokeshi adventure. A bit late, yes, but essential because, after all, our jaunt up north to Tohoku was the very definition of a kokeshi adventure as defined by me, a guy who writes a blog called "Kokeshi Adventures." But I digress.
On the morning of 27 June we departed Akita and headed south through the mountains into Yamagata Prefecture 山形県. Yamagata is known for its cherries, and cherry trees just dripping with fruit were everywhere along the side of the national road that connected Yamagata to Akita. The prefecture is heavily agricultural and cherries are one of its specialties. Yamagata is also known for kokeshis, and we were on our way to a day trip at Tendo Onsen 天童温泉 where there were at least two kokeshi workshops we were hoping to visit.
Before continuing I should say something about Yamagata's kokeshis. There are actually two different types found there: Zao-Takayu 蔵王高湯系 and Yamagata 山形系. In my opinion Yamagata's do not have a particularly distinctive look that makes one say "that's a Yamagata!" On the other hand, Zaos are very distinct, despite some variety within the type, because of their use of darker woods, an interesting torso shape that's different from other kokeshis, and (often) a shock of black hair with a small red dot in the middle. But these are just indicators that one is looking at a Zao, versus clear kokeshi types such as Tsugaru and Kijiyama.
Anyway, when we arrived at Tendo we couldn't help but notice that the town's identity wasn't kokeshis, or even onsens, but rather the game of shogi 将棋 (Japanese chess). That was actually really cool, and something of a surprise. Meanwhile, we drove around somewhat blindly for a bit until finally stumbling across Eishundo 栄春堂, a shop devoted to shogi, kokeshis, and the people who make them. We had arrived. There was a small museum in the back (which is how we entered), as well as work areas for shoji craftsmen. Most interesting to us, of course, was kokeshi craftsman Mr. Aida Eiji's 会田栄治さん work area. Unfortunately he wasn't at his station so we didn't get to talk with him. Furthermore, there didn't seem to be anybody in the shop who knew much about kokeshis. Too bad. We did, however, find a couple of really nice pieces by Mr. Aida before we left the store. After that we drove to destination number two: The workshop of Mr. Mito Hiroshi 水戸寛さん, about which I'll continue below.
Mr. Aida's work area and his kokeshis.
A little souvenier from Eishundo. It's a hybrid kokeshi-shogi piece, a knickknack really. Interesting, though I didn't get one.
Mr. Aida's unique kokeshis for sale in the shop. We bought one of the ones with the large head -- do you see it?
A kokeshi noren.
The front of the shop. Tendo is a really a nice little city in a beautiful area.
Mito Kokeshi 水戸こけし wasn't too far away, but it wasn't necessarily easy to find either and Naoko had to call and get directions. I'll say up front that I'm really glad our kokeshi trip ended up here, since Mr. Mito -- 89 years  old -- is a master craftsman who, I would argue, is in his own category. What do I mean by that? Well, he's been making kokeshis since 1955, so he really knows what he's doing when it comes to lathing and painting. But there's something about the refinement of his work that is different from other craftsmen we met. While I don't have time to get too much into his work, I would like to mention Mr. Mito's tiny kokeshis which are the smallest I've seen, and when you look closely you'll see that they are also 100% Mito kokeshis in terms of the faces and patterns. I will definitely be doing a blog in the future specifically on Mr. Mito's work.
We were at Mito Kokeshi for at least 90 minutes, but possibly two hours, chatting with both Mr. and Mrs. Mito who apparently had lots of time to spare. It was still fairly close to 3-11, so besides kokeshis the disaster was the main topic for discussion. Like other places we had visited Tendo had its share of refugees from the area that had been hit by the tsunami. 
While we were there nobody else came into the shop, so we were able to examine everything fully, and ended up picking an ejiko えじこ (hollow kokeshi with removable head) that had multiple tiny kokeshis inside it, plus a regular Zao type, a hollow Daruma containing multiple tiny darumas, and a couple of other pieces. All fantastic, and Mr. Mito's kokeshis are easily some of my favorites in our collection.
The front of Mito Kokeshi in the heart of Tendo City.
Mr. Mito's Zao type kokeshis. His faces are just delightful and are identical to those on even his tiniest kokeshis.
Mr. Mito also makes Darumas, and if you twist the top off there's a number of small Darumas inside. Naoko got this one.
Mr. Mito at his lathe demonstrating how to make a tiny kokeshi. He has made his own tools and brushes that allow him to get down to a tiny size.
A nearly completed tiny kokeshi. I watched him make this miniature work of art -- unbelievable.
A pile of Mr. Mito's tiny kokeshis. He produces these at a progidous rate. Note that each one has his signature on the bottom. Click on the photo for a closer look.
Not a bowl of candy, but kokeshis!
Mr. Mito makes lots of ejiko えじこ, and fills each with his tiny kokeshis as an added bonus. Highly, highly recommended for serious enthusiasts.
We finally bid Mr. and Mrs. Mito a fond, fond farewell and made our way to the highway for a long drive through the mountains to Miyagi Prefecture, and then south to Mashiko Town in Tochigi Prefecture where we stayed at our favorite bed and breakfast. In our trunk was a week's worth of kokeshi purchases that now make up the heart of our collection. But had it really been a week? In a sense Naoko, the girls and I had lived a lifetime as kokeshi adventurers, but in the end it was, as the Japanese used to say, like a dream within a dream.
I can't wait to do it again.  

Monday, February 27, 2012

52nd Annual All Gunma Modern Kokeshi Show 第52回全群馬近代こけしコンクール

As a kokeshi enthusiast I must admit that I prefer traditional kokeshis to their better known (at least among Americans and other foreigners) brethren, the so-called modern kokeshis 近代こけし. Nonetheless, if you've been following this blog for the last year then you know that I occasionally do stories on modern kokeshis and have a definite appreciation for them. Last last February I wrote on the All Gunma Modern Kokeshi Show in Maebashi City, Gunma, and since it was really great we decided to return again this year to see what the modern kokeshi craftsmen have been up to. We were definitely not disappointed! The event is basically a competition among modern kokeshi makers who create in two distinct categories: Shinkei 新系 (New Type), and Sosaku  創作 (Creative). Both of these categories vary wildly, though in my opinion shinkei are more like the kokeshis one sees for sale in gift shops at Narita Airport or other tourist spots, while sosaku kokeshis are effectively sculptures and are most likely one of a kind pieces. All of them, however, are wonderful expressions of the craftsmen's creative minds, and the sosaku kokeshis should probably be seen as art objects as opposed to folk art which is the category in which I would place traditional kokeshis. 
There was a large selection of modern kokeshis for sale, and yes we bought a couple including the small white one picture on the event poster above. For the sake of expediency I'm just going to post a number of pictures without explanation to give an inkling of the amazing variety on display at the show. Believe me, these photos barely scratch the surface -- there was a lot to see! The ones with wooden signs in front of them were award winners of one type or another.
Kokeshi lovers, I highly recommend attending this event in 2013. It's a kokeshi adventure you won't soon forget.    
Like last year, the show was held in the spectacular Maebashi City municipal building.


There were a few dioramas like this. Pretty interesting.

Modern kokeshi cell phone straps. Innovative!

Some of the kokeshis for sale.
More kokeshis for sale. The realistic faces on these were pretty interesting, though I'm not sure I'm too fond of them.
There was a make-your-own kokeshi table for the kids. I swear that these three worked on their kokeshis for at least one hour, but maybe 90 minutes.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

I think it's reasonable to say that enthusiasts of traditional kokeshis would probably prefer to live somewhere in Tohoku, perhaps Sendai, or Yamagata City (maybe even Fukushima, radiation or not). The next best thing is probably Tokyo. After all, we're just a five-hour drive from Sendai, we have the Kokeshi Tomo no Kai and a couple of shops that sell kokeshis. Plus from time to time, there are visits to our fair city by traditional kokeshi makers. Last year I blogged about a Miyagi Prefecture 宮城県 products exhibition down in Ikebukuro in which kokeshi makers played an active role. Similarly, today we went downtown to the massive Tobu department store in Ikebukuro where there was a huge exhibition of traditional handmade Japanese goods from all over Japan -- cloth, pottery, furniture (tansu and Butsudan), woven bamboo baskets, traditional brushes and tools, you name it. It was really quite something, and judging by the number of people milling around it was also very well received. I must say that there is no lack of interest among Japanese in their traditional handicrafts, which pleases me to no end.
There were also two kokeshi displays, one from Naruko Onsen in Miyagi, and one from Yuzawa Onsen in Akita about which I just wrote in this blog two days ago. Yes, of course we went to this show specifically to see the kokeshi makers and give them some support. We were definitely not disappointed, and apparently they were quite popular! The Kijiyama kokeshis 木地山系 from Akita Prefecture 秋田県 were pretty spectacular, and Naoko got to chat with Mr. Miharu Fumio 三春文雄さん, a kokeshi craftsman who, it turns out, lives five minutes from where we were during our visit to Yuzawa Onsen 湯沢温泉 last summer. Hopefully we'll get to see him the next time we're up in that area. We bought three charming Kijiyamas which can be seen in the photos below. We also spoke with Mr. Sato Yoshihiro 佐藤賀宏さん, a Naruko kokeshi 鳴子系 maker who was at the exhibition, and purchased one of his unique kokeshis. I don't remember seeing him during our trip to Naruko last year, but he must have been there. Anyway, the large crowd of people at the exhibition made it a bit difficult to spend time really examining the kokeshis, but I think we got some good ones. Kokeshi Adventure in downtown Tokyo: Mission accomplished!

The Kijiyama kokeshi booth with Mr. Miharu in the plaid shirt. The fellow on the left inspecting the kokeshi had just knocked over about five or six kokeshis, and it was funny to see that Kijiyamas fall over a lot like bowling pins.
Kijiyama kokeshis. I was not aware of the variety in the Kijiyama world.
These beauties are by Mr. Takahashi Yuji who we met last summer. It was like seeing old friends.
This poster was on the wall at the Kijiyama booth, and I was surprised to see that instead of the name "Kijiyama" it says Kawatsura Kokeshi 川連こけし. What is that?
Naoko chatting with Mr. Sato about his wonderful kokeshis.
We bought these three Kijiyamas. The one on the left is by a craftsam who is 84 years old.
I always say that it's the faces on the kokeshis that surprise me the most.  Genius.
We bought this nice Naruko piece by Mr. Sato. Unlike most Narukos it's short and squat, making it quite unique.