TOKYO -- It has grown considerably colder in Japan, especially the mornings and nights, and cherry tree and ginkgo leaves cover the ground. During autumn, a type of bamboo rake called "kumade," literally meaning "bear claw," comes in handy when gathering fallen leaves.
While this implement is used to gather leaves, another kind of "kumade" is said to rake in good luck and fortune. Kumade lucky charms can be found in outdoor markets that are a part of the "Tori-no-ichi" festivals held at various shrines across Japan. Some of the products are decked with traditional lucky symbols, such as the seven gods of good fortune, while others feature popular characters that are currently trending.
"Prosperity of business, peace at home, prayers for your health." Such chants, as well as rhythmic clapping called "sanbon-jime," which consists of three sets of claps followed by one final clap, echo throughout the shrine grounds. They contain the wish that the kumade transactions will go well while also celebrating the approaching new year. The ceremonial clapping is a famous specialty of the Tori-no-ichi festivals. Although chants were banned for last year's festivals to prevent droplet transmission amid the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers have carried on with this special event, which occurs around November on the Days of the Rooster, or "Tori no Hi," that fall in the month. Customers this year, too, will purchase new lucky rakes to welcome a fresh start for the new year, and place them in high places in stores and houses, where they are revered as talisman.
One particularly famous spot for Tori-no-ichi festivals, which signals the arrival of the year-end, is Ohtori Shrine located in the outskirts of Tokyo's Asakusa area. This year, the Tori-no-ichi festival will be held twice, on Nov. 9 and 21. Ohtori Shrine is one of only two locations that has continuously held the festivals every year since their start in the Edo period (1603-1867) without resting once. Legend has it that Japanese folk hero Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, one of the enshrined deities of Ohtori Shrine, offered a kumade rake to the shrine to express gratitude for a successful conquest on a day in November that fell on the Day of the Rooster. While there are only two Days of the Rooster this year, some years have three, and festivals are held three times accordingly.
At Ohtori Shrine's Tori-no-ichi festival, one of the largest of its kind in Japan, booths of about 160 kumade shops are lined up, and handy uchiwa fan-sized products, as well as gigantic ones to decorate offices, fill up the market. The inside of the shrine, usually inconspicuous and hidden among buildings, becomes a complex maze packed with kumade charms.
The shapes and types of decorations piled onto kumade rakes vary among stores. While products incorporating trends draw attention each year, there is also a shop that has protected the material and methods that have been passed down from the past. The workshop, Takarabune-kumade Yoshida, is located near Ohtori Shrine in Asakusa.
Each kumade lucky charm consists of slender bamboo sticks with paper glued onto them, featuring motifs including the seven deities of good fortune, treasure ships, sea breams, "koban" oval gold coins, drawstring pouches, straw raincoats and woven hats. Each is handmade, and craftspeople of the workshop create the products by splitting up the tasks of cutting the paper following templates, gluing it onto bamboo sticks, drawing in the outline, and painting patterns in with vivid colors. When I visited one workspace, five craftswomen were carefully illustrating patterns resembling a boy dressed in Chinese clothes -- said to be a messenger of the deities -- onto each paper cutout.
The store's kumade lucky charms, which are called "aka-mono," (literally meaning "red objects") are bright and elegant.
Kyoko Yoshida, 64, the fourth-generation head of the workshop, said, "As they're symbols bringing good luck, we paint the faces of the seven gods of good fortune with broad grins on their faces." The soft and charming faces indeed puts a smile on whoever looks at them. In the first few years after learning the technique, the craftsperson draws patterns while imitating a model passed down from previous generations, but they eventually pick up the craft and are able to depict the figures without looking at a template.
One whole year is dedicated to creating kumade ornaments. Once the Tori-no-ichi festival comes to an end, the workshop then begins to create products for the next autumn season.
At the beginning of the year, the shop first engages in the task of splitting bamboo. Bamboo used in traditional "kadomatsu" New Year decorations is reused and processed to create rake teeth and the slender sticks to which lucky motifs are later attached, before being dried. In autumn, green bamboo to be made into the kumade rake's base is cut into appropriate sizes, and the teeth, or the part resembling a claw, and straw are attached and assembled. These tasks are entrusted to the male staff members at the workshop. The bamboo sticks with the lucky motifs, which are made steadily and little by little throughout the year, are then inserted into the base after shaving the tip with a carving knife. At the center of the kumade rake is an offering shaped like a mochi rice cake. This apparently serves as a sort of miniature altar. The seven gods of good fortune are placed in the middle, while the other motifs are positioned symmetrically.
Takarabune-kumade Yoshida sells its kumade products only once a year during the Tori-no-ichi festivals at Ohtori Shrine. Just like the materials used for its products -- bamboo, paper and straw -- its sales principle is also simple: to sell its items only once a year at Ohtori Shrine.
"Our basic approach is to make the same things as the previous year. As they're all made and painted by hand, there is a limit to the number we can produce. There are customers who come every year to buy these lucky charms, which remain unchanged, and we look forward to seeing them once every year."
At midnight, the beat of a drum will echo throughout the area, signaling the start of the Tori-no-ichi festival at Ohtori Shrine. The open-air market will continue for 24 hours until midnight of the following day, without any breaks. The big day, and the busiest of the year, which kumade craftspeople spend the year working toward, is approaching in Japan's capital.
(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)
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A word of wisdom: Kumade lucky charms' energy can only be bought at once-a-year festival
My first impression of kumade rakes was that they were colorful decorations with colossal amounts of lucky symbols piled on top of the other. Although I found the various ornaments cute, like the red sea breams and smiling gods, my reaction stopped right there, that they were cute.
I later learned that the rich tradition was not so much about the objects themselves, but the distinctive air, energy, and interactions born from their sales at the Tori-no-ichi festival.
"There's no point if you don't buy them at the festival," said 74-year-old Kazuhiko Yokoyama, an organizer of the event, after stating tersely that selling kumade ornaments online was out of the question.
During the festival held only a few times per year, the Ohtori Shrine grounds -- which appear rather small when vacant -- are packed with over 150 booths that all sell different kinds of kumade, and are bustling with shop owners and customers, some of whom visit the shrine after enjoying themselves in food stalls on the surrounding streets.
In the old days, shop owners and customers engaged in a sort of bargaining where a customer asks for a lower price, which the shop owner goes along with. The interesting part is that after the transaction is seemingly over, the customer returns the change given to them, like leaving a tip at a restaurant. This was considered to be a mark of sophistication and finesse. Though this interaction is not seen as often today, the festival organizer said there are customers who come to purchase kumade as they enjoy this back-and-forth exchange.
"The festival's aim is to have visitors look around the various kumade shops, and ponder over which ones to buy, while having a fun time together, and to take away luck and fortune for the next year through this activity," said the organizer. The festivals of each year have their own unique atmosphere, which is also affected by external conditions like the weather. Yokoyama says that it is precisely because kumade ornaments have the quality of being time- and place-specific that they allow people to "rake in and bring back the energy of the festival."
"This is something that can only be bought here, and most definitely can't be bought online," he said.
(By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)
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Takarabune-kumade Yoshida is located at 3-20-25 Senzoku in Tokyo's Taito Ward.
The first-generation head of the shop, who was a construction worker, began making kumade in his free time in the beginning of the Showa era. The shop has been succeeded from second-generation head Hidekichi, third-generation head Keiko and fourth-generation head Kyoko to fifth-generation head Tadahiko, 38. Kyoko's mother Keiko, who turned 100 this year, is known as a "legendary presence" among those at the Tori-no-ichi festival. Last year, the shop accepted reservations in advance to have kumade products delivered to those who could not visit the shrine due to the pandemic.
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The shop can be contacted on phone at 03-3874-3096
Its social media accounts can be reached via the following links:
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The "Enchanting Edo" series highlights Japanese traditions, crafts, artisanal techniques and culture that date back several hundred years. Stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent, while also keeping them alive in the modern day.
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