Wed, Jul 8, 2020

Takashiba Dekoyashiki: Craft village for traditional Japanese toys in Fukushima

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

An impressive red Tengu mask eyeing up visitors to Hikoji-mingei’s shop and workspace
By Toby Birkbeck-Jones / CIR for Fukushima Prefecture

Takashiba Dekoyashiki is famous throughout Japan as one of the homes of traditional Japanese toys. Four houses called Dekoyashiki (literally, house of dolls) in the former Takashiba district (now part of Koriyama city) have preserved the traditional craft for over 300 years, passing down the traditions of handmade paper-mache dolls, masks and wooden Miharu-goma toy horses. The famous carved wooden forms used by each family to shape the paper-mache dolls were designated as an important cultural property of Fukushima Prefecture on Aug. 1, 1958.

Mix of dolls drying after being painted, including the 12 animals of the zodiac, at Hiroji-mingei

There are several stories of how this small district got started on producing dolls. The most plausible of which says that the Takashiba district during the Edo period was quite poor, and farmers sought ways of making a side income during the winter months by working on other projects. It is said that Fushimi dolls from Kyoto became quite popular in the region and served as inspiration for the four families in Takashiba (all with the same surname of Hashimoto) to start producing dolls of their own. Due to the popularity of the dolls they produced, they eventually stopped farming in favor of producing dolls year round.  

What goes into making the dolls and masks? First a wooden form is carved from wood to act as a frame for the paper-mache. Then thin sheets of Japanese paper (washi paper) are prepared by brushing them gently with water to make them moist and pliable. The wooden form is then tightly wrapped in a thin oil soaked cloth to which the strips of moistened washi paper are applied and molded to the shape. The dolls are then painted with glue to hold them together and set aside in a warm area (often around a brazier) to dry. Once dry, the wooden form is removed by cutting a slit in the dried paper-mache, this opening is then glued back together and the doll is then prepared for painting by first applying a layer of glue mixed with calcium carbonate (this layer helps to further harden the doll and acts as a primer), once this layer is dry the doll is ready for painting.

Paper-mache Pouncing Tiger dolls prior to painting at Hiroji-mingei

Some of the dolls are complex enough that the individual parts of the doll must be prepared separately with multiple wooden forms and then glued together before the primer coat is applied. The most difficult doll for house Hiroji-mingei is the samurai horse rider which takes about a week to produce. The large dolls like the big Daruma can take several weeks to a month to dry. In the Edo period when kabuki theater was taking off, dolls featuring characters or scenes from Kabuki plays became popular and are a specialty of their house hold. These days dolls representing the animals of the zodiac have also become quite popular. The successor of house Hiroji-mingei feels that it is important that the art of making the dolls continue to be passed down in its traditional form from generation to generation. Saying that he feels the importance of it not stopping with his generation.

A row of Daruma dolls warding off evil inside Hiroji-mingei
One of the places where the craftsmen of Hiroji-mingei work
Hiroji-mingei’s most complicated doll – the Samurai Horse Rider
Paper-mache Boar dolls being prepared for painting

One of the most unique toys from Takashiba Dekoyashiki is the Miharu-goma wooden horse toy (originally called Takashiba Kinma) made exclusively by house Hikoji-mingei. These wooden horses come in black (representing strong healthy children) and white (representing longevity and good health). The Miharu-goma are said to date back over 1200 years to when the founder of the famous Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto, shogun Sakanoue no Tamuramoro received a wooden horse carved from the left over wood of a Buddhist statue featured in the temple. When engaging in a bitter battle in the north it is said that the toy horse brought a hundred horses to aid in the battle and then was later lost. It was later found covered in sweat in the Takashiba district. The decedents of the family that found the lost wooden horse continued to carve its image and pass it down where it has been used as a toy, a good luck charm against diseases like smallpox and measles, and as a symbol of fertility for families wanting children.

A life-size Miharu-goma wooden horse outside of Hikoji-mingei

During my visit to Takashiba Dekoyashiki, I was really impressed by the craftsmen’s zeal and enthusiasm for continuing their craft using traditional techniques, and how for them the act is a way of continuing to connect with their ancestors.

If you visit Takashiba Dekoyashiki make sure you check out the museum building alongside the four houses. It was really fascinating to see carved wooden forms from hundreds of years ago, and see how different designs have changed along with the times and popularity. Several of the houses also give you the option of painting your own paper-mache doll, mask or Miharu-goma for something extra special.

(Photos courtesy of Toby Birkbeck-Jones)

(Cooperation: CLAIR)

Profile

Toby Birkbeck-Jones

Toby is from Christchurch, New Zealand, currently living in Fukushima Prefecture and working as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) at the International Affairs Division of the Fukushima Prefectural Government. Main duties include coordinating JET participants in the prefecture, translation, interpreting and assisting in a variety of events and programs linked to internationalization. Like most Kiwis, he has always been interested in Japan, but after reading Haruki Murakami’s novel ‘Kafka on the shore,’ he became intensely interested in learning the language. Since then, he has practiced Aikido and Kendo, played in a traditional Japanese drumming group, made his own Kimono, and even acted in Japanese plays.

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