Saturday, 22 August 2015

Japan Times kokeshi article

Yay, the Japan Times has a travel story I wrote on Naruko Onsen, one of the kokeshi production hubs of Tohoku. I went up here initially for the kawaii book, completely fell in love and went on to make an entire book on kokeshi. I went up again to Naruko a few times, this interview was done a few weeks ago when I went up to Kesennuma, but any reason to go there is a good reason. I am really happy to see this in JT, it is such a beautiful place with beautiful people, I really want people to go up! The fall photo was taken Autumn 2012 -- seriously, I have never seen such intense colors in nature. Thanks so much Mio for editing this story! and thanks JT, I hope it inspires people to go up! m(_  _)m

edited to add, there seems to be some confusion as to what kokeshi are! They are wooden folk toys/ crafts/ dolls. Originally kids toys, then collectors items/ souvenirs/ home decoration -- they do not have any spiritual / talismanic meaning, they are not a kind of totem pole, they do not represent children dead or alive, they do not represent a god or a deity, they are not Shinto in nature, although they are worshipped in this little town because Naruko is the home of the highest concentration of kokeshi ateliers (the same way broken sewing needles are worshipped at Asakusa Senjoji, as a way to say, "thank you!") They are, quite simply, folk craft/ dolls, but are used as interior design items, to decorate the house.  Most of all (for me and many backpackers nowadays) they are connected to Tohoku onsen tourism, as for the most part you actually need to go to these AMAZING onsen villages to get them, so people hop around Tohoku, using these dolls as an excuse to travel to these beautiful villages.

Miyagi’s hot-spring valley of the dolls

Special To The Japan Times
If local train rides, bucolic vistas, simple family-run ryokans and hot-spring baths overflowing with mineral-rich waters sounds like the perfect getaway, Naruko Onsen village in Miyagi Prefecture should be your next destination.

Accessible by the Rikuu-East train line, the valley is flanked by wooded mountains and gorges, and its abundant onsen hot springs are lauded for their therapeutic properties.

Originally, the hot springs in the region catered to farmers, who would visit rudimentary inns and use the onsen to relax or revive themselves during harsh winters. Now, however, the agricultural clientele has been largely replaced by tourists, many of whom visit to retrace the footsteps of 17th-century haiku poet Matsuo Basho, who famously passed through the region when compiling his travelogue “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” Others also flock to the region to view its autumn leaves, a spectacular sight that fills the gorge with vivid vermilion and yellows.

Lately, though, there is another type of visitor — mostly young women, often traveling in pairs or small groups — who are here for one purpose: to check out some of Naruko’s most well-known residents — the humble kokeshi.

Kokeshi are simple hand-crafted dolls that are traditionally made in the Tohoku region’s hot-spring villages. Carved out of local wood varieties — maple, cherry and dogwood — they are characterized by their limbless cylindrical shape, delicate hand-painted features and decorative shades of yellow, red, green and purple.

Naruko is a kokeshi production hub with the highest concentration of kokeshi ateliers in Japan and the biggest kokeshi museum, housing around 5,000 dolls. To an almost comical degree, kokeshi motifs adorn all manner of objects across the village — from manhole covers and hand rails to telephone boxes and even fire trucks. On every street you’ll find a kokeshi studio, while many ryokans (Japanese inns) have doll collections — the display at the Naruko hotel, the largest lodging in Naruko, which was established in 1873, is nothing short of formidable. All the gift shops, of course, also offer a variety of kokeshi-themed goods, including tenugui hand towels and lanterns.

It’s not surprising then, that Naruko also hosts the best opportunity to see many regional variations of kokeshi dolls in one place. The village’s kokeshi festival on Sept. 5 and 6 is the largest in Japan, and artisans from all over Tohoku come together to enter dolls in a major competition and sell their wares. As the evening sets in, a touching, if not odd, ceremony takes place the village’s Kokeshi Shrine. Old, unwanted dolls that have been brought to the shrine are blessed by a Shinto priest before being dramatically burned in a ceremonial fire. Poignant as it sounds, though, one local described the ceremony as way of saying to the old dolls: “You tried your best, thank you for your service!”

If you do feel the urge to “rescue” an old kokeshi, though, take a trip to the Japan Kokeshi Museum, which holds an auction of vintage dolls during the festival weekend and this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that the price of the dolls can be very reasonable, cheap even. On my visit, I was lucky enough to win a few dolls that caught my eye with bids of only ¥300.

With so many dolls — all laid out at the auction — it’s perhaps useful to know that there are 11 types of kokeshi, each based on region and with their own characteristics. Of these, the Naruko ones are the most recognizable. Usually made from creamy colored dogwood that fades to a rich chestnut hue as it ages, the dolls have classical facial features of slender eyes, small U-shaped noses and scarlet lips.

 Their straight bodies with slightly tapered waists are typically embellished with red and green chrysanthemum motifs, and their heads can be turned, the friction making a distinct squeaking noise.
Attaching the head requires a technique of great skill and dexterity, something that is worthwhile seeing done in person.

Yasuo Okazaki is a third generation kokeshi kōjin (artisan) with a rustic studio just five minutes from Naruko Onsen Station. Like in many kokeshi ateliers, the work station is next to the window, so passersby can watch Okazaki in action. As a rokuro (lathe) spins, Okazaki picks up an iron chisel-like tool and begins to carve. Under his skillful hand, the wood appears surprisingly malleable and watching the kokeshi unfold is hypnotic.

“Prior to kokeshi making, our trade was woodworking, and our forefathers made bowls and trays. The birthplace of woodworking is Tsutsui Shrine in Higashiomi City, Shiga Prefecture,” Okazaki explains as he carves. “The word workers had a license to cut the trees on the mountains for their products, and they would pay the government a set amount every year. They made dolls for their kids, and the kokeshi tradition came from there.”

The history of kokeshi has not been well documented, so their origins are unclear, but it’s believed that the first kokeshi were made during the Edo Period (1603-1868) in the Sakunami onsen region. It later spread to the rest of northern Japan and woodworkers began to focus primarily on kokeshi production, rather than kitchenware, as the dolls started becoming a form of home decoration.
During the postwar Showa Era (1926-1989), the dolls became popular souvenirs for newlyweds on their honeymoon in Naruko, and around the same time, kokeshi fanatics would travel around the Tohoku region amassing huge quantities of the dolls, some collecting by size, shape and type.
Mastering the craft of kokeshi takes around 10 years, as the artisans typically do most of the work themselves, from peeling the bark off the wood, making the tools, polishing the wood, painting the motifs and faces, and selling the final product.

Okazaki recalls the arduous learning curve, “I would practice on eggs or other round things like a cylinder with paper wrapped around it,” he tells me. “I would also have to make several sets of tools a day, as I would break them while I was training.”

Such apprenticeship periods has made the task of finding successors one of the difficulties now facing the industry — the youngest kokeshi maker in Naruko is Yoshinobu Kakizawa who is his 40s, and many artisans like Okazaki currently don’t have apprentices. Sadly, as overseas holidays became cheaper and the norm for Japanese vacationers, visiting countryside onsen towns fell out of vogue.

The recent interest in the industry, though good for the area, has an unfortunate background. Tohoku was the hardest hit region of Japan during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, after which the kokeshi became a symbol of sorts for the area. Galleries in Tokyo, including those at Tokyo’s Parco shopping mall and Claska hotel, held kokeshi exhibitions, and Japanese media coverage helped create a boom that continues today. Recently, fashion retailer Beams oversaw an indigo kokeshi project, which sold out instantly, and artisans in regions as far as Aomori now have orders for the months ahead. Okazaki explains that it is “mostly young women in their 20s and 30s, nicknamed ‘kokeshi jōshi‘ (kokeshi women)” who are now collecting them.

While the kokeshi artisans are somewhat surprised at their recent wave of popularity, the charming dolls are appealing to these new fans in a multitude of ways. Their demure facial expressions are often said to have the same qualities as contemporary kawaii (cute) characters. Then there’s the beauty of the wood grain and the warmth of handmade goods.

The small contemporary types of kokeshi, designed by craftsmen to fit the new market are humorous and sweet — they sit in baths or wear berets, some with manga-style eyes and long eyelashes, others are even shaped like cats. But it is hoped that these will trigger the buyers’ interest in the craft and that they will learn to also appreciate the more traditional types.

For Okazaki, the appeal of kokeshi is beautifully simple: “When you come home from work and you are tired, kokeshi makes you feel healed and comforted.”

Getting there: Naruko Onsen can be reached from Tokyo by shinkansen to Furukawa Station (approximately an hour-and-a-half journey) followed by the Rikuu-East line (approx 45 minutes) for around ¥12,000 one way.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Tokyo Weekender

Tokyo Weekender have an interview with me about the kokeshi book. Yay. thank you so much Tokyo Weekender and Chris. 

Question: Why did you to want to write about kokeshi and how did the project get started?
Manami Okazaki: I actually started interviewing kokeshi artisans for a previous book I made on kawaii culture. Many of my interviewees in Tokyo told me to check them out, if I wanted to understand the roots of contemporary kawaii culture and aesthetics. Kokeshi have completely ambiguous facial expressions, you can’t quite tell if they are laughing, smiling, nonchalant or sad, even. For many designers, this lack of distinct facial expressions is one of the characteristics successful kawaii characters like Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma have in common.
My first interview was with Yasuo Okazaki during the kokeshi festival weekend (incidentally, it is coming up in September) and I had the most incredible time. The locals were so above and beyond hospitable, and I was mesmerized by the process of making kokeshi. I was completely in love with the village, the artisan ateliers, the cute kokeshi and the incredible countryside, and wanted everyone to experience it as well.
Q: An impressive amount of research has gone into the book, including 23 different interviews with kokeshi craftsmen across the 6 prefectures of Tohoku. How long has this book been in the making?
MO: Actually, if I planned it efficiently, I probably could have done it quite quickly, as the region of Tohoku itself is not that big. However, I did a lot of side trips to places like Tono Valley, Osorezan, Sakata, Kakunodate and so on, and looked at other aspects of Tohoku culture, so it ended up taking a lot of time. I really had a great time  backpacking around Tohoku, and had no desire to rush the experience. I also went to a few of the regions, like Naruko a few times.
Q: You must have met some inspiring people during the research and interview process. Are there any particularly memorable experiences you’d like to share?
MO: The people in Tohoku are so warm, it is almost surreal. They were so genuinely helpful and gracious. Everyday, I was completely bowled over at how kind the people were, and how much they would help me.  I even had one random lady drive me around as I was walking along the road, and she was afraid I was going to get eaten by a bear!
 After the book was finished, many of the kokeshi artisans sent me handwritten letters with kokeshi to say thank you—usually I don’t even receive an email from interviewees.  The folks from YK Suisan sent me a box of fish, and the managers at Horieya ryokan in Fukushima sent me a box of peaches! Given the nuclear disaster is causing the entire region is struggle at the moment, that is the last thing they needed to do. They are truly lovely people.

Another memorable thing about the people in Tohoku, is that many of them are actually still alive and talking to me because they were saved from the tsunami by some incredible miracle. One lady’s mum was hauled out of a car, which was washed up a hill while the tsunami wave pulled back. Another stopped off to get a sweet potato and was late for work when the tsunami hit Onagawa. So despite the horror of the disaster, there were also uplifting anecdotes. You would have to be a robot to not be moved by these stories.
 Q: You have dedicated a chapter to discussing the distinctive features and historical context of each of the 11 types of traditional kokeshi. Do you have a favorite type? Why?
MO: I like Naruko kokeshi. They are the most orthodox but they are so minimal and striking. To me, they are the most elegantly designed item, and so well balanced. I like the really eccentric looking types as well, like the Hijiori kokeshi.
Q: Do you have a kokeshi collection of your own?
MO: I have about 25 now. I did have a fairly large collection and I completely understand the drive to collect, but I sold most of them for charity at the Japan Expo in Paris a few years ago. So, quite enviably, there are quite a few kokeshi living in Parisian apartments at the moment, enjoying a cool European summer.
 Q: Many of the “koujin” (kokeshi makers) talk about the fluctuating interest in kokeshi over the years. What is the market like at the moment? What do you see happening in the future for the kokeshi industry?
MO: After the tsunami, Tohoku became something at the forefront of Japanese people’s consciousness, even if they had never even thought about Tohoku before the disaster. Tohoku products became focused on, and the Japanese media created a bit of a kokeshi craze. It seemed like every time I turned on the TV, there were kokeshi-related TV shows – even ones analyzing the sound of the wood when you turn the kokeshi’s head! Many products with kokeshi motifs (which have nothing to do with real kokeshi per se) sprung up and there were events and exhibitions in Tokyo and Osaka.

 The demand for kokeshi is still strong at the moment, I tried to buy one of Muchihide Abo’s and was told it would be a several week wait time, and I went to Naruko recently, and everyone was busy. I wonder if this will last though, as Japanese consumers tend go crazy over trends, and then move on the next thing immediately.

 The biggest problem now is that there is demand, but very few successors. It is the same as all the artisan crafts in Japan. Because it takes so long to become professional, young people don’t have the patience to sit through the apprenticeship period. I met three young artisans, but the rest are reaching retirement age, and many of the artisans I tried to get in touch with were in hospital, or not physically able to make them anymore.

Q: Kokeshi were originally designed to be used as children’s toys. Why are people buying them these days?
MO: They are an interior design item, something to decorate the house. The main reasons people buy them now is because they are cute, and they are said to be “healing.” There is something really comforting about having this lovingly crafted piece of wood in your house; it really adds something nice to your space.
 I think perhaps people are getting sick of kitsch that lasts a few months, and needs to be thrown out so you can get the next new thing. Kokeshi are amazing as they don’t degrade with age, in fact, they get more characteristic and improve as time goes on.

Also, I think a lot people, including young people, are thinking about whether they want to the get something made in a third world country, in a process that is completely invisible, or something made by hand by a master craftsmen in the Tohoku countryside – these kinds of products with feel-good narratives are gaining popularity now. I interviewed an American artist, Rowland Ricketts for a book on kimono culture. He makes hand-dyed items from natural indigo and he pointed out that products like this have a very different “energy of production” to something made in a factory.

Q: There is some beautiful photography in the book that really captures the essence of kokeshi culture. What are your favourite photos from the book? Is there a story behind them?
MO: My favourite photos are from Toshiyuki Kojima’s studio in Aomori. He passed away a few weeks after I interviewed him, and I am so happy I was able to meet him. I think the amazing thing about books are that they leave behind a legacy. Some kids in the US can pick up the book in a library in 20 years time, and see his studio and imagine what it is like, and appreciate his work.

Q: There are now 2 editions of your book. What’s new in the 2nd edition?
MO: It is not a new book, I just want to make that clear for people who have the first edition.  There are 60 more photos, 3 new profiles, new chapters, it is larger, higher quality paper which is from environmentally sustainable sources in Europe, really thick, textured hardcover and a larger format.  

 Q: Thank you very much for your time! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
MO: Most tourists do the Tokyo – Osaka – Kyoto route, but if you want a perfect mini trip from Tokyo, sitting in hot springs, eating countryside cuisine, hopping around artisan studios in remote villages and ogling spectacular nature will make you extremely happy to be alive!
If you cant make it to Tohoku, there is a new shop in the Skytree Solamachi shopping floor called “Tohoku Standard Market” which sells genuine, handcrafted kokeshi from many of the people featured in my book. Just a heads up – many of the “kokeshi” that you see at the airport shops are actually not kokeshi at all, and are probably made overseas!