Japan

Koi-nobori

Koi-nobori

Koi-nobori

The carp has the power and determination to fight its way upstream against all obstacles and so was chosen as a symbol for the qualities a boy should strive to emulate. For several weeks before and after May 5th, officially called Kodomo-no-hi or Children’s Day more popularly known as Boys Day (to balance Girls’ Day on March 3rd), carp kites fly from high poles outside houses, catching the wind like wind socks and swimming upwind. Once the number of kites told the number of sons in the family but today a family will fly two or three regardless of how many boys they have. A large koi nobori flies above the case and two small ones rest in the corners.

Hagoita

Hagoita

Hagoita

Young women used the hagoita or “battledore” to bat a shuttlecock back and forth at the New Year festival. The shuttlecock flew like a dragonfly and so this game, called oibane, was thought to encourage dragonflies and diminish the mosquito population! This highly decorated hagoita is for show, not for oibane.

Geta

Geta

Geta

Wooden clogs made from one piece of wood are an important part of traditional costume. They must also have been useful for lifting the hem of the kimono a little higher above the muddy streets of Edo.

Maneki-neko

Maneki-neko

Maneki-neko

The “beckoning cat” dates from around 1800. Two rival tea shops near Ekoh-in Temple in today’s Tokyo displayed porcelain cats, one golden colored and the other silver, in their bid to attract customers. The owner of the first was a wastrel; his wife had to borrow money, lost it and ruined the friend who lent her the money. She and her friend committed double suicide and the sensation brought prosperity to the shop of the golden cat and ruin to the other. The golden cat became a symbol for good luck. Unscrupulous salesmen convinced the gullible that they needed to buy 48 cats over a four year period to assure their good luck and, if any misfortune occurred, they had to start over! Apparently the temple authorities profited from this con game, too.

Uzura-guruma

Uzura-guruma

Uzura-guruma

An influx of Korean refugees in the mid-7th century brought many new arts such as silk culture, weaving and brewing to the island of Kyushu. One of these immigrants is said to have carved the first uzura or quail on his 100th birthday as a gift for his descendants. Over time the uzura came to be considered helpful to women in childbirth and 30 years ago the residents of Kyushu were still buying it for this reason.

Suzuri & Fude

Suzuri

Suzuri

The first suzuri came from China but soon Japanese craftsmen found the right kind of slate to make their own. The inkstone has a flat surface where a stick of dried ink or sumi is ground into a fine powder which, when mixed with water, makes an ink of whatever thickness and darkness the calligrapher desires. The deeper well holds the ink and the brush can be reshaped on the flat grinding surface in preparation for writing.

The brushes used for calligraphy come in all shapes and sizes, from a three-rat-hair brush used for the most delicate characters to thick brushes with thousands of hairs. Horses, goats, badgers, rabbits and many other animals contribute their hair to fude.

Sashiko

Sashiko

Sashiko

Sashiko began as darning to repair and strengthen precious cotton garments but soon grew into a decorative art. The white threads on a dark background became patterns for quilting warm outer and under garments for farmers and fishermen. Today sashiko has become a more purely decorative art practiced by men and women alike. If you don’t want to invent your own design, you can buy pre-chalked cotton and stitch along the lines!

Kiji-guruma

Kiji-guruma

Kiji-guruma

Members of the defeated Heike clan took refuge in the mountains of Kyushu and began producing these toys and also hagoita (description follows) to make a living. Carved from one piece of wood, the kiji or pheasant has a large red camellia above the tail feather striping. Its red color shows sympathy for the Heike, whose banner was bright red.

Ito-mari

Ito-mari

Ito-mari

As the new year approaches, a mother begins to wind old thread into a tight ball. As the ball grows close to its final size, she carefully chooses threads for color and length and using curved needles creates an intricate design. Her daughter wakes up on New Years to find a new ito-mari next to her pillow. Once used by girls for a game of catch, ito-mari are now decorative. Designs vary according to region and the individual maker.

Origami

Origami

Origami

Origami or “folded paper” has its origins in the white folded strips of paper called nigite that hang from shimenawa, sacred straw ropes, to decorate Shinto and Buddhist shrines. They represent the hands of the gods, who hold us all. Early origami, beautiful and yet inexpensive to create, represented different forms of life for ritual purposes. Origami, simple or incredibly intricate, has since become a popular craft for people of all ages, not only in Japan but around the world.

Daruma

Daruma

Daruma

The daruma is modeled on Bodhidharma, the famous monk with fierce gaze from around 500AD who meditated so long, one story goes, that he lost the use of his legs — hence the doll’s squat shape. The name comes from “dharma”, the teaching of the Buddha. When given as a present at the New Year, both of Bodhidharma’s eyes are blank. The recipient paints in one pupil as she or he makes a wish or a resolution, and when that goal is attained or that prayer answered the second pupil is painted. Some of these papier mache figures are weighted at the bottom so that when pushed over, they stand back up. The lesson is, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”

Uchiwa

Uchiwa

Uchiwa

A carefully selected bamboo stalk is split into multiple “fingers”. When these are fanned out they form the ribs of the fan, and a very durable washi or handmade paper is then glued on both sides of the ribs. The uchiwa does not fold as does the sensu but is no less effective in keeping you cool! Dancers at the O-Bon festival carry uchiwa as they dance under the night sky.

Sensu

Sensu

Sensu

A widow retired to Mieido temple, outside of Kyoto, to mourn her husband. Shortly after, the temple abbot fell ill with a high fever. The widow spent days praying for him, while fanning his fevered head with a piece of folded paper. He recovered and some say this is the origin of sensu, and that the monks of Mieido are particularly skillful at making them. These beautifully decorated fans of bamboo and paper are given as marks of esteem to someone special. Traditional theater uses fans in many ways: the sensu can become a partition to hide behind; a letter to be read; a cup of sake to be drained. And of course sensu are used for keeping cool in the hot and humid summer months.

Tako

Tako

Tako

Children all over Asia make kites of paper, bamboo and glue from rice flour. In Edo (1603-1867) kites were made smaller than a modern calling card. Other kites are so huge they require 40 men to fly them. At Hamamatsu, the Kite Festival pits teams against each other, all trying to position their huge kite so that its string saws through another team’s, sending the opponents’ kite plunging to the earth.

Bangasa

Bangasa

Bangasa

This ribbed rain umbrella came to Japan from Korea during the reign of Emperor Kimmei (539-571). The King of Kudara in Korea sent Emperor Kimmei two silk umbrellas as tribute. The Japanese had used large reed hats as rainwear until then. The district of Gifu is famous for its bangasa with hinged bamboo ribs that are held in place by horsehair threads, which also reinforce the paper covering.