ほていのカラコあそび (hotei no karako asobi) Hotei playing with karako
This work depicts Hotei, one of the Seven Lucky Gods from Chinese folklore. In the West, he is known as the Laughing Buddha and is often depicted as a cheerful fat bald man. Inside of the Hotei, is a smaller top in the shape of a karako (Chinese child doll). When you remove the Hotei figure, the base becomes a platform to spin the karako on, so it appears as if Hotei is playing with the doll.
Hiroi Michiaki: This is Hotei (the god of luck) playing with a karako (Chinese doll). If you take this off, there’s a tiny karako top within, and this platform becomes an arena [to spin it in]. When you spin this part, it starts sumo wrestling, clanging about. And so it’s like Hotei is playing with the karako. It’s that sort of top.
This top depicts Fukusuke, a popular doll figure in Japanese and Chinese culture. Fukusuke figures in Japan go back to around the nineteenth century (Edo period), where they were often enshrined at brothels and tea houses as bringers of good luck. Their use has since widened. Fukusuke figures are typically shown to be sitting in traditional seiza position while prostrating themselves. Hiroi-sensei has made this depiction of Fukusuke as a figurine, not a top.
Hiroi Michiaki: Ummm, this is Fukusuke.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah.
Hiroi: Fukusuke… I think this is just Fukusuke. It’s not a top. It’s a figurine.
What does making wooden tops look like? How do they use the lathe to make this kind of art? Below we feature photographs of Hiroi-sensei and his apprentices from the 1980s, seen hard at work producing Edo-style tops. The tops are made by placing a block of wood on the lathe and spinning it rapidly while cutting into the wood with metal tools. Paint is applied to the finished top while it spins on the lathe.
You can listen to and read an interview with Hiroi on his own early apprenticeship here.
This top features Onabegonsuke. According to Hiroi-sensei, Onabegonsuke is the lowest-ranking god of luck.
Hiroi Michiaki: And this is Onabegonsuke. Onabegonsuke is… umm, he’s the lowest-ranking god of luck. And if you spin this, his neck bobs up and down at this part. Heh heh heh. That [part is] a kitchen, a cooking stove.