Hiroi-sensei and the top-making process

In this post, Hiroi-sensei describes the difficult process of woodworking behind top creation as well as the long history of tops in Japan


Paula: When you’re teaching apprentices, what is the first skill you teach them? Or, what do you think is the most important lesson?

Hiroi: Mmm, the most important one? What is the most important one?

Paula: Or the first step.

Hiroi: Well, I don’t really say such difficult things like “first step.” It’s [more like] “Do it because you love it.” Anyway, at first you mimic the hand movements, and I teach how to carve. So that anyone can learn it, I take their hands and show them, and after that, little by little back off, so they are doing it on their own. So it’s [learned] rather quickly. People who take a longer amount of time take about half a year before they can make a single top. And people who take a while, there are some that take quite a long time.

Usually apprentices struggled with the tops for half a year or a year, and then were gradually able to make apprentice tops. So it’s not that there’s a particularly important thing I teach them. The most important thing is for them is the feeling that they want to learn it themselves.

And this, well, in the past, it was that no matter what, a master’s skills had to be inherited, not that you did it because you liked it, and if the master did it a certain way, you had to do it exactly like that. It was like we absolutely had to do it one way. But people who do it for a hobby do it because they love it, they learn it because they just enjoy it, and before I teach them something like “an important [lesson],” they already love it, so there’s no need to say such unnecessary things like that.  So I lend a hand so that they can make even just one [top], no matter how long it takes. Even if it wobbles a little or something, if they can make even one top, I’m so happy. And then they get absorbed in [making them], and they come again wanting to make a better one and want to give it their best on their own. And they keep at it, and like Landis-sensei get really good at it. That she had to go back to America– I think it was fitting, since she became so good at [top making]. Heh heh heh.

Paula: When your apprentices’ training is done, how do you keep in touch with them?

Hiroi:  Mmm, I don’t really keep in touch with them. When my apprentices have time they come for a lesson. I don’t really say anything [to keep up with them] on my part. Apprentices come when they want to work on [their skills], and if they come, I teach them. It’s like that. So it’s very free in that way. So I don’t force them to do anything. It’s the same for those who are pros and those who are amateurs.

Paula: In the teaching of your apprentices, what is a daily lesson like?

Hiroi: Mmm, just foolish talk. And everyone rolls around laughing, “hahaha,” “hohoho,” and just enjoys themselves. We talk about all kinds of things here, and in those conversations there’s fun things, humor like the Edo iki*, and jokes. There’s a lot of that [when we get together], and if I were giving a strict lecture, or teaching as if I were in a classroom, then I couldn’t make learning and teaching interesting. So I break it up and make it half play. And very free-form.

And those [apprentices], how should I put it? They have their own distinctive character. And there’s a certain style of Edo tops, but within that, I [have them] make make it in their own way while enjoying themselves. So everyone learns while having fun. It’s the same for those doing it professionally and as a hobby. If you don’t have that, then you really can’t make interesting tops. It’s fine to teach it like, “This is like this, so do it like this. This is like this, so don’t do that,” but then everyone will make the same things, and their charm disappears. Everyone is their own person, so in order to make the best use of that individuality, they [should] make them freely, doing interesting things while enjoying themselves. For pros and amateurs alike.

Paula: What do you feel is the most challenging aspect of learning the woodworking craft? Not just making tops…

Hiroi: The most challenging part is the seikan, sawing the wood, making the tools– blacksmithing. Tool-making. That is difficult. If you can skillfully make the tools and saw the wood, you can do anything. If it’s just carving, even a person doing it as a hobby can manage, but if you become a pro, you can’t be a professional just with that [skill], so until you get on the lathe, the preparation before that is the sawing [kidori 木取り], finely cutting the actual tree trunk. Some time ago Maeda-kun cut some of the ones over there, and to saw in the kidori style, he made tools, and the tools were based on the items he made; he came up with a variety of tools by himself.

If you can’t make your own tools well, you won’t be able to come into your own [as a top-maker]. It’s difficult to teach it as well as to use a design, and in the end you just have to learn it yourself. Well, I teach the fundamentals. But I’m not a blacksmith, you know. Though I’m an amateur at smithing, I have my own style. I tentatively teach my own style of it, though I don’t know if that’s in itself a kind of tradition. I teach about the tools that I use here [at my workshop]. And now Maeda-kun is thinking about it himself and making his own tools. If you’re able to do that, then you’ve matured [as a top-maker]. That’s actually what’s most difficult.

Paula: Um, regarding the Edo tops, can you explain a bit about their characteristics? For example, how are they different from other tops?

Hiroi: Ahh, they’re totally different from other tops. Umm, well, in Japan there are many different tops that are the famous product of different areas, but these are almost all tops that you spin outside. The tops that I make, well, of course you can spin them outside, too, but almost all of them are called “tatami tops” and are meant to be played with and enjoyed indoors. And when you’re not playing with them you display them, and enjoy them that way. They’re tops that you can enjoy in a number of ways. Their characteristics are that they’re “tatami tops,” you use them indoors, and you usually play with them.

And there’s many different types. That there’s a lot of types, too, is something from long ago, in the Edo period… In Japan, long ago, in ancient times, a thousand or two thousand years ago, on the morning of New Year’s Day, at the imperial court they spun tops and, err, how should I describe it? They wanted to create the country’s policies, so they used [the tops] for fortune-telling. And there was an official who spun tops on the morning of New Year’s Day, and through what direction they stopped on, decided things like harvest will be good this year, or the harvest will be bad, so we have to do this or we can’t do this, etc., and [the tops] were used that way. One of them was, umm, when they built the bullet train here, in the city of Natori, there was an archaeological site called Shimizu, i think. And they excavated it to build the bullet train tracks. When they did, from inside a well they found three things: a top, a flute, and comb. One of those items is preserved in the prefectural Folk Museum in Takajo. I think they still have it.

The top is about this big. And there’s no doubt it was made with a lathe. I think it might be the oldest [top found] in Japan, and it was about a thousand years old. And the fact that it was found like that in the well, with the flute and the comb, means it was probably used to fortune-telling, or a charm, or… what should I call it? Used for deciding something. That there was a flute and a comb along with the top meant that it was for a matsuri (festival/ritual). So it is said to be for something like that. A good luck charm, or fortune-telling. It seems it was probably for deciding important things.

And burying it inside the well like that, what would you call it today? Um, you would bury such things in the well when there was an outbreak of contagious disease or illness, like dysentery in children or regular dysentery. If you drank the water in the well, the disease would spread. So they’d fill in the well so it couldn’t be used anymore, and at that time [the objects] would be sort of like a sacrifice. It would be like you were sacrificing them, and the top, the flute, things you usually use everyday would be buried [along with the well]. And people think that’s what they were used for.  And there’s no doubt that the tops were made using a lathe. And there was evidence of shavings from a lathe (kanname 鉋目).

And there’s evidence it was spun, too! On the tip of the top, it was rubbed by grit and rounded off. It must have been spun a number of times. So it was probably used for fortune-telling. It was probably that the most elite person in the village where those remains were used it for fortune-telling. And at that time, it was a top shaped like this. This kind of shape, but… umm, a top shaped like this, but… here, like this, there was a pattern from using a plane tool… and this area was rubbed away. Rubbed away by grit. And here, there was no hole, but it had [evidence] that it had been broken by being snapped off with a saw, so it looked like there was a hole. If you looked at it from the top, it looked like this. It was said that it looked like there was a shaft there, and if that was the case, it was really incredible, a breakthrough discovery. I asked to see it, and went there. Looking at it, there was evidence it had been cut with a saw, and that it had been cut and snapped off. And when I said that, they said they didn’t think there were saws around in use during that time period. But since this was evidence that without a doubt it had been cut with a saw, this was a huge discovery. For the history of saws, they said that if that was the case it would change the history of saw usage. And that it was incredible that in this period they already had saws. And everyone made a big fuss about it and about tops, and the people involved in saws also clamored about it. Hehehe. The history goes back hundreds of years. They were all excited about it and top people weren’t allowed to touch it because they wanted to preserve it forever. Hahaha. I expect they still have it [at the museum].

Paula: What kind of objects are in the collection of Edo tops that Landis-sensei has? Could you explain a little about them?

Hiroi: There’s all kinds of them. Ah– where are the photos from yesterday?

Paula: Ahh, well, um, tomorrow we’ll look at them and you can explain a little about them one by one, but overall, [could you explain about] what kind of themes they’re on, that sort of thing…

Hiroi: Ahh… the themes depend on the top. So rather than there being an overall theme, each one of them has one, and they have their own stories, so all together they’re Edo tops.


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