Friday, August 29, 2014

Abe Shin'ya Kokeshi 阿部進矢こけし

During our big trip up north last month we saw lots of kokeshis, but I'm not sure we were really having complete kokeshi adventures. However, on our way back down south along the Japan Sea we finally had a really good one.
Our destination was Atsumi Onsen 温海温泉 in southwestern Yamagata Prefecture near the border with Niigata Prefecture. Atsumi, you see, is the home of one of Naoko's favorite kokeshi makers, Mr. Abe Shin'ya 阿部進矢さん, but because Atsumi is relatively isolated and somewhat difficut to get to we've never been able to visit his shop. On top of that Naoko is not the only enthusiast who like's Mr. Abe's wide-eyed, heavy-set designs, so his kokeshis are quite hard to come by. Therefore, this was a necessary trip to make. 
Hey, where are the giant kokeshis?!?
We found Atsumi pretty easily, but it was surprisingly tough to find Mr. Abe's shop. We first stopped at the train station where there's usually tourist information available, but they didn't have any brochures and the station attendant had no idea Mr. Abe was. On top of that we knew that there were two large Abe kokeshis on the Atsumi station platform, but when we went out to see them they weren't there. According to the station clerk the giant kokeshis had deteriorated so badly that they had to be thrown away. Too bad! But we were in the right town, so we headed up into the mountains where the onsen is located. 
Atsumi is in a deep green valley and is really very pretty. There are lots of old inns clustered beside a large river, so it feels just like a nice old onsen town (which is indeed the case -- people have been going there for more than a thousand years). Although our plan was to stop for a couple of hours and then get back on the road to Tokyo, after having lunch at a delightful little coffee shop we decided to find a room and stay for the night. After all, we had the beautiful mountains and river, hot springs, and also the ocean and beach just down the road. What a great place to spend some time relaxing at the tail end of our vacation.
A public foot bath. 
Our inn.
Walking along the river.
Exploring the shore on the Japan Sea.
Of course our primary goal was to visit Mr. Abe's kokeshi shop, and we finally discovered its whereabouts through the Atsumi tourist office. We were close, and after parking at a public parking area we walked around the corner, down a side street and there it was!
That's Mr. Abe's shop on the right.
Mr. Abe wasn't there at first, but after a few minutes he drove up. He and Mrs. Abe then welcomed us into their living room and, as is the tradition, we were fed some local foods. Naoko is such a big fan of Mr. Abe that she had lots of questions, and of course was just happy to be in the very place where such wonderful kokeshis are created.  
Naoko and Mr. Abe.
I think Naoko had her eye on those giant kokeshis in the background,  but Mr. Abe no longer makes large ones like that.
As it turned out -- and we kind of knew this already -- Mr. Abe is currently so swamped with demand for his kokeshis that he can only take orders. Also, one must keep in mind that he is 77 years old and probably could have retired years ago, but I think he feels obligated to his many fans that ceaselessly buy his kokeshis. Because of his popularity I would guess that with the ongoing kokeshi boom there's no end in sight for him. Fortunately Mr. Abe had a lot of kokeshis on display, many of which were recently made orders, and he said it was ok to photograph and show them on this blog. We had never seen so many new Abe kokeshis inn one place, so this was a real treat.
Naoko went through the catalogs with Mr. Abe and chose a few kokeshis. It will take a few months for them to be completed, so I'll show those on the blog after they arrive.
Naoko choosing some kokeshis.
A couple pages from the catalog.
We had a really nice time with the Abes, but finally had to say goodbye and decided to head down toward the Japan Sea so Lena and Emily could climb on the rocks and splash in the water. But the kokeshi adventure wasn't quite over, as standing like a guardian at the entrance of Atsumi was a  giant Abe kokeshi staring out to sea. Here are a couple of views.
And so ended another kokeshi adventure to Tohoku. If you want to visit Mr. Abe it's probably easiest to drive, but taking the train is a viable option too. I would highly recommend staying in Atsumi for at least one night, but just be sure to call ahead of time and make sure that Mr. Abe will be in.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Shizukuishi Kokeshi 雫石こけし

While traveling south from Aomori we decided to cut across Iwate Prefecture on the way to Akita Prefecture and see Lake Tazawa 田沢湖 and the old samurai town Kakunodate 角館. On the way we stopped at the Shizukuishi Anekko Michi no Eki 雫石あねっこ道の駅 to take a break and lo and behold there were a bunch of unexpected kokeshis!

The craftsman is somebody named Mr. Ito 伊東さん from Shizukuishi Town and he makes Anekko Kokeshis あねっここけし named after the area. I've never heard of Mr. Ito and he doesn't appear in the kokeshi craftsmen guide, so he's an outsider I guess. I would say his work is somewhere between a traditional kokeshi and a modern kokeshi. 
Most of the kokeshis for sale were perfectly white with red and black coloring, which is a striking combination. I thought they were quite nice actually, but in the end we didn't get one. Oh well. There were also some unpainted kokeshis, which is of course the Iwate style.

An explanation of the Shizukuishi Anekko Kokeshi tradition which started about 45 years ago.

This was the river behind the Michi no Eki. It's really beautiful up in Iwate.
As we drove to the Japan Sea in Akita Prefecture there weren't any kokeshi makers to visit despite Akita being a traditional kokeshi area. However, later in the trip I did spot two bona fide Kijiyama kokeshis 木地山系こけし at yet another Michi no Eki. I didn't catch the craftsman's name, but it was nice to see them there.
Frankly, we weren't really looking for kokeshis on this leg of our trip, but we found some nonetheless.

Monday, August 25, 2014

To Kamikita! 上北へ!

While up in Aomori we went to the little town of Kamikita, which I'm not sure is really even a town. Whatever its status it is the home of kokeshi craftsman Ms. Honma Naoko 本間直子さん who makes some of the cutest Tsugaru kokeshis 津軽系こけし you're going to see. We spent a couple hours with her enjoying a warm July day, and these photos show some of the pieces she had to show us.

After that we stopped by the Michi no Eki 道の駅 in Shichinohe City 七戸市, which is right next to the magnificent new Shinkansen (bullet train) station. We were very pleased to find that there was a section devoted to Ms. Honma's kokeshis!
A very nice, relaxing kokeshi-themed day up in northern Japan.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Return to the Tsugaru Kokeshi-kan

Last month Naoko, Lena, Emily and I made our way north on a ten-day driving trip around Hokkaido, Aomori, and the Japan Sea. It was a terrific vacation, and of course we had some kokeshi adventures along the way. The first adventure was to the wonderful Tsugaru Kokeshi-kan 津軽こけし館 in Kuroishi City 黒石市 as you'll see in the photos below. We've been there a couple of times before, and it is always worth a visit. There's a very nice kokeshi museum on the second floor, but we stuck to the first floor where master craftsman Mr. Abo Muchihide 阿保六知秀さん was demonstrating his craft, and where there's a huge collection of traditional kokeshis and kokeshi goods for sale.
The sign says "Welcome: Kuroishi." Nothing says "welcome" like a giant Tsugaru kokeshi!
From the outside nothing has changed since our last visit, but the inside has been remodeled nicely with even more emphasis on new kokeshis from Aomori and around Tohoku. Everything looks great!

Naoko chatting with the Kokeshi-kan's manager Mr. Yamada. 
Hina kokeshis. 

While not exactly kokeshis, many kokeshi craftsmen also make wooden Darumas and the Kokeshi-kan has a nice collection available.  

Some kokeshis by Mr. Shimazu Sei'ichi 島津誠一さん. I got the yellow one on the right. 

Some kokeshis by a new maker named Honda who doesn't even appear in the latest kokeshi makers handbook. Really nice work!
A close-up of one of Honda-san's kokeshis.

The Kokeshi-kan is also a great place to get Kokeshi Jidai magazine, either the latest edition or back issues. Here you can see the ones on display, and Mr. Yamada will send them out through the mail if you make an order. 

This book is devoted to the kokeshis of Mr. Kon Akira 今晃さん. Mr. Kon has a lot of fans who probably wouldn't mind the 10,800 yen price.
And it turns out that the folks who brought us the influential Kokeshi Book have recently brought out a similar book on Darumas that's available at the Kokeshi-kan. 
Usually there's a craftsman on hand at the Kokeshi-kan, and the day we visited it was Mr. Abo Muchihide whose workshop is right up the valley from the Kokeshi-kan. We visited him back in 2011.
The next thing I knew my daughters were making their own kokeshis under Mr. Abo's patient tutelage.
A job well done.
And there were plenty of kokeshi goods as you'll see in the photos below.
A kokeshi-apple towel. Kokeshis and apples are two symbols of Aomori.

This is a great place to learn about and purchase kokeshis, and it's right in the heart of a major kokeshi-producing area. I cannot recommend the Kokeshi-kan highly enough!