TOKYO -- The base of Tokyo Skytree in the capital's Sumida Ward has long been home to many small factories. Walking along a narrow alley in the neighborhood, backstreet manufactories and workshops can be spotted here and there. Craftspeople here continue to create traditional items while respecting methods passed down from the past.
Located in this neighborhood is "Hagoita no Kogetsu," which specializes in making decorative wooden paddles called "oshie-hagoita." The craft combines "hagoita" -- a paddle-shaped racket used in a traditional New Year game resembling badminton called "hanetsuki" that is also a common gift for baby girls for their first New Year -- with "oshie," (literally meaning "pressed picture"), a Japanese patchwork technique where fabric is pasted onto cardboard outlines while cotton is stuffed in between, to create a three-dimensional mounted design.
The method for creating the decorative paddles has basically been preserved since its development in the Edo period (1603-1867). Nishiyama Kogetsu, 59, is the second-generation master of the shop and has spent 40 years specializing in the profession. He showed us around the establishment.
It is believed the idea for oshie-hagoita originated in the late Edo period, sometime between 1804 and 1830. Items made by attaching "oshie" patchworks of popular contemporary Kabuki actors onto "hagoita" paddles proved big sellers. The paddles may have served as souvenir for Edo period Kabuki fans.
Oshie patchwork gives a 3D form to patterns with the attachment of pieces of cloth, padded with cotton in between, onto thick paper. Although the artform was used to decorate tiny boxes, "byobu" folding screens, uchiwa fans, and other objects, the fusion of the patchwork and "hagoita" paddles broke new ground. Nishiyama remarked, "To put it in contemporary terms, I guess you could say they were decorative paddles with 3D pictures. That the completely separate elements of "oshie" and "hagoita" were combined must mean there was a creative mastermind in the town of Edo."
The shop's decorative paddles are mainly categorized under two types: "male" and "female" versions. "For 'male version' paddles, we create fabulous Kabuki actors designs that look like they're popping out from the stage. For female items, we bring to life beautiful faces with the wish that young girls will grow up soundly in good health," Nishiyama said.
The 3D patchwork technique brings out the strong builds and heroic characteristics of figures performed in Kabuki plays, such as legendary warrior monk Benkei who died standing as arrows pierced through him. For female version paddles, elegant kimono enhance women's gentle facial expressions.
While oshie-hagoita paddles first spread amid Kabuki theater's popularity in the Edo period, there is also the custom of buying them as New Year gifts for families in which girls have been born recently. The rising popularity of hagoita paddles decorated with oshie patchwork turned them into the centerpiece of the "Toshi-no-ichi" annual open-air market now held annually from Dec. 17 to 19 on the premises of Sensoji Temple in Tokyo's Asakusa area.
Several years ago, a woman visited the shop to buy a female-version hagoita to celebrate her first granddaughter's birth. The woman had apparently remembered the shop's previous generation head had told her about the traditional wooden paddles when she was a young banker aged about 20.
Nishiyama remarked, "I was profoundly moved. After all, a customer who remembered what my father had said visited the store 40 years later. The work of today isn't just for today. Nowadays, I make sure to tell customers, 'Thank you for protecting Japan's traditional hagoita culture.'"
Wooden paddles measuring around 60 centimeters are said to be the shop's main product. It's apparently the perfect size for pinning them on horizontal beams in traditional Japanese rooms.
For those living in modern homes, Nishiyama suggests creating a small space in one corner to put up various decorations for seasonal events, such as the star festival "Tanabata" in July and Christmas. "I suppose hagoita paddles befit the New Year holiday in this case," he said.
Hagoita paddles created using 3D patchwork were born from an Edo craftsman's playful imagination. The reason they have been treasured for so long may lie in the rich inventiveness of craftspeople, which has remained unchanged all this time.
(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)
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A word of wisdom: Oshie-hagoita embodies Kabuki actors' grandeur on real-life stages today
"There's really no room for flexibility when it comes to oshie-hagoita," said Hagoita no Kogetsu's second-generation master Nishiyama Kogetsu. He emphasized that while modern trends are incorporated in some traditional crafts, oshie-hagoita is a type of work that cannot replace its subjects of Kabuki actors with trending motifs like Amabie traditional folklore creatures. However, as we were shown around the shop, I was convinced that oshie-hagoita was not a tradition that followed rigid rules and templates, but a craft that involves careful study and subtle adjustments to bring to life today's Kabuki actors and performances.
When Nishiyama's father was alive, the two split tasks between them, with his father drawing the figures' faces and painting kimono patterns, and Nishiyama creating each body part of the patchwork. Since his father passed away, Nishiyama has taken up both tasks and completes the works on his own.
To achieve lifelike recreations, Nishiyama said he visits Kabuki theaters about once a month to get ideas for costume color schemes, as well as the types of props held by the figures representing different actors. I was very surprised. Not only does Nishiyama devote himself to his craft, which requires unique skills like painting on the uneven surface of cloth, but he also does the extra homework of going to performances to absorb certain scenes with his own eyes.
"Within the V shape of a hagoita paddle, I try to express the grandeur and force of Kabuki actors as if they're emerging from a real-life stage," he said.
As a result, the amount of cotton used as stuffing, and other factors vary by the paddles of each actor and character. Although each decorative paddle contains just one actor, in real Kabuki performances, multiple characters appear on stage simultaneously. So, on top of the play's overall atmosphere, Nishiyama also visualizes where the actors may be positioned relative to each other and the stage. The direction of the figure's face and their gaze are shifted accordingly. It was another unexpected revelation.
Nishiyama hopes these subtle adjustments will leave room for customers and Kabuki fans to imagine certain scenes the actors may be performing.
Nishiyama himself was self-effacing and said the craft is "inflexible" and "no big deal." But I felt that while the shop's oshie-hagoita are deeply rooted in tradition, they are also highly creative and ever-changing works that capture the powerful performances of today's actors.
(By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)
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Steps to create an "oshie-hagoita" decorative paddle
Making these decorative paddles can be roughly divided into two tasks: Drawing the face, and making and combining the body parts through patchwork.
-- "Oshie" patchwork
The craftsperson does a rough sketch while considering what pose the figure should take, the kinds of props to be added, and other aspects. Patchwork parts, including the kimono collars and "obi" sashes, are decided based on this sketch. Cardboard outlines are made for each part. After cotton is placed on the thick paper and wrapped in cloth, the cloth's edges are pasted onto the paper. While cloth pieces with small patterns designed for oshie-hagoita are available today, large-patterned kimono fabric can be seen in old works.
-- Face illustrations
Drawing the facial expressions requires the most care. Material designated for Nihonga Japanese-style paintings is chiefly used for the paint, and with a paintbrush made from weasel and Japanese raccoon dog fur, the craftsperson carefully draws the face as if applying makeup.
For some paddles, the craftsperson paints kimono patterns onto the fabric. They illustrate patterns on certain actors' costumes, such as sakura cherry blossoms and wisteria flowers, that they have seen in live Kabuki performances.
Hagoita wooden paddles first appeared in a record from Japan's Muromachi period (1336-1573) that reads, "At the emperor's residence in Kyoto during the New Year, Imperial Family members and female attendants divided themselves into two teams and enjoyed 'hanetsuki' (traditional badminton)."
The shuttlecocks used in hanetsuki represent dragonflies that eat disease-carrying mosquitoes, and playing the game served as prayers for sound health and the extermination of plagues.
Old hagoita paddles created from the Meiji to Showa periods (late 19th to late 20th centuries) are on display at a small museum in a corner of the Hagoita no Kogetsu shop.
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Hagoita no Kogetsu
The shop was established by first-generation Nishiyama Kogetsu (1921-2014), who began training under a traditional oshie-hagoita craftsman at 15, and became an independent craftsman at age 19. The establishment moved to its current location from around 1955 to 1959. The first-generation master passed away seven years ago, and the business was succeeded by his son Kazuhiro, who also goes by the pseudonym Kogetsu.
Its address is: 5-43-25 Mukojima, Sumida Ward, Tokyo.
Phone number: 03-3623-1305
The workshop has an online blog, at https://kougetsu.exblog.jp/ (in Japanese)
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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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The next "Enchanting Edo" story on soba noodles will be published on Dec. 14.