While Janell was an apprentice to Hiroi-sensei, he encouraged her to produce tops that dealt with themes related to American folk culture and lore that reflected both her background and the art and culture of her new home through traditional Japanese crafts. The photos below show tops Janell made in the 1980s. There are both western-themed tops and traditional Japanese tops.
Hiroi-sensei and Maeda-san have appeared many times in Japanese newspapers. Below is a translation of an article entitled “Moved from Toshima, To Train in Akiu: Maeda from the Izu Islands” that ran January 10, 2008 in the newspaper Kahoku shinpō. See the original Japanese article at the link below.
Click here for the original article: 記事はこちら。
Kahoku shinpō (January 10, 2008)
Moved from Toshima, To Train in Akiu: Maeda from the Izu Islands
“I want to become a woodworker using camellia wood in my hometown”
Akiu Craft Village in the Taihaku Ward of Sendai City and the Izu Islands near Tokyo are forming a closer bond. A man from Toshima has moved to Akiu and is training in traditional crafts. Given the opportunity to use reclaimed camellia wood from the Izu islands during his training at Akiu Craft Village, in the future, he hopes to return to his hometown as a woodworker specializing in their local camellia wood. For Akiu, they can also greatly increase the assortment of products they make, and their craftspeople have responded warmly, saying, “We this to become a bridge between Akiu and isolated islands of the Pacific.”
This man is Maeda Ryōji (26). While working a part-time job at a gas station in Sendai, he commutes to the “Komaya [Top Shop] Hiroi” workshop and is learning how to make tea cups, saucers, and tops.
The Hiroi workshop is managed by Hiroi Michiaki (74), one of the seven artisans of the Akiu Craft Village Work Association.
Maeda, after helping with his parent’s fishing business, worked at a company in Tokyo. In spring of 2004, he came to sell camellia oil at a product fair in Akiu Craft Village, where he by chance met Hiroi and developed an interest in traditional arts. In fall, he moved to Sendai.
Maeda says that his dream is “to master [everything], from methods of sawing to the making of ten types of edged tools using the lathe, then become the only woodworker in Toshima.”
In 2004, at the suggestion of local planner Aizawa Yū (51, Izumi Ward), the Work Association began a project to create new traditional craft pieces using reclaimed wood from Toshima. They received a donation of camellia wood from Toshima village and began their exchange selling kokeshi and accessory cases they made from it.
Compared with dogwood and other trees used for wooden toys, camellia has numerous hidden knots in the wood and becomes extremely hard when dried, making it difficult to work with. The products made from camellia have a particular texture and tint to them that give them a high-quality feeling.
Aizawa has said, “I thought we would join forces—Toshima, which had an issue with disposing of its old camellia wood, and the Craft Village, which was looking for a new challenge. We would be happy if Maeda became an independent craftsperson and inherited our traditional craft techniques.”
“I don’t think there are any woodworkers in Japan that use camellia. I want to guide Maeda so he can readily become an independent artisan,” Hiroi said enthusiastically.
Toshima 利島 is located 140 km south of Tokyo. The population of the island, which spans about 8 km in circumference, is around 300 people. More than half the island is covered with around 200,000 camellia trees, whichproduced about 14.5 kiloleters (3830.5 gallons) of camellia oil from their seeds a year in 2006–an estimated 60% of all of Japan’s camellia oil.
Creating Edogoma involves careful work within the workshop. Hiroi-sensei creates his own tools and spends hours at the lathe carving and painting his tops. The following photos show Hiroi-sensei at work in his small workshop at the front of his store and home in Akiu Craft Village.
This top is a momigoma, or a “hand-rubbing top,” which is spun by rubbing the handle of the top quickly between your palms.
The following materials are from an exhibition Hiroi-sensei described in his earlier interviews. The exhibition occurred from June to August 1993 at the Sendai City Museum. The materials included an image guide to tops in the exhibition and an informational page on the history of tops. Regarding this exhibition, Hiroi-sensei said:
“The Sendai museum. I’ve done an exhibition of these Edo tops before. What was amazing at that time was the museum exhibited all of the tops, and we asked Landis-sensei if there was something she’d use to describe the Edo tops in one word in English, and it was the first time I’d heard her use the word unbelievable [anbiriihaburu]] And the museum wrote above its entrance “Unbelievable Edo Tops.” And before long it was on television, so at the time they started saying unbelievable. It might be because of Landis-sensei that the word unbelievable spread throughout Japan at the time. Heh heh heh. Until then no one knew about that kind of thing. It was said that that word fit Edo tops perfectly. I thought, “Yeah, that’s the sort of thing they are.” “
See the interview here: Hiroi-sensei and Exhibitions
See the catalog here: Exhibition_Catalog
「仙台市の博物館、博物館でね。この江戸独楽の、展示をやったことがあるんですよ。そのときに、あとすごかったのは、あの博物館全部この江戸独楽を飾って、でそのときにランディス先生に、あの英語で、一言でこの江戸独楽を表現する、何か言葉ないかってんで、そのとき初めてランディス先生に「アンビリーバブル (unbelievable)」って言葉を聞いて。であの博物館の入口にでっかく「アンビリーバブル (unbelievable) 江戸独楽」って書いてあった。それからね、間もなくしてからテレビだのなんだので、この頃アンビリーバブルって言うようになったのね。そのときは、だから、日本でアンビリーバブルって言葉流行らしたのはランディス先生かも分かんない。へへへ。それまで、そういうこと知らなかったものね。だっけ、江戸独楽がその言葉にぴったりなんだって言われて。あぁそういうもんなだ、と思って、いたんですけどね。」
This top does not have a particular title, and Hiroi-sensei does not remember anything about it.
Hiroi Michiaki: I don’t know what this is. I didn’t know [before either]. Mm. It’s pretty big isn’t it? Mm. I don’t quite know, though. I don’t know. It’s a top that comes to a point, huh.
In this post, Hiroi-sensei highlights his own experiences as an apprentice and the many years he instructed others. He describes the apprenticing process and the years of dedication necessary to become a master top-maker.
Paula Curtis: And to continue, can you tell us a little about your experience as an apprentice?
Hiroi Michiaki: As an apprentice?
Paula: Yes, um, such as, when you were an Edo top apprentice and first began learning it, what was the most difficult thing, for example. Could you explain a bit about that experience?
Hiroi: Ahh… yes. The most difficult thing was whether a top would spin well or not. At the beginning I didn’t know what I should do to make it spin well. That was definitely the most difficult thing. It’s still hard now, though, it’s still difficult. How it will spin, how I should produce it to get different ways of moving; since the many ways it moves depend on the strength of the top. That foundation… making the top so that it spins, that’s the most [difficult]. A lot of years… it takes a lot of years [to learn], you know. Even now it’s the same. That’s really the most difficult thing.
Paula: Even now, um–
Hiroi: Even now.
Paula: Even now, do your apprentices think that is the most difficult thing [to learn]?
Hiroi: Ahh, I don’t know what my apprentices think. I think it’s probably the same, though. And for tops, you know right away. Whether it’s good or bad. No matter how many you make with this shape, if you spin it and watch and it goes rattling about, it’s not a good one. So that’s the most difficult part. I think my apprentices probably have that same worry, even now, worried [about how they spin].
Paula: When did you first start accepting apprentices?
Hiroi: Mm, when was my first apprentice…? Ahh, it was after we came to Fukuhara, right. Umm it was some years ago… mm, it was some years ago so I’ve forgotten. Quite a while back. It was before we came here, so we came here at least twenty-five years ago, and it was before that, so about thirty years ago, I think.
Paula: How many apprentices do you usually have?
Hiroi: At first it was one. And I mentioned this before, but that apprentice had a lot of friends and brought seven people with him, so, yeah, it was when we were in Fukuhara, so before we came here.
Paula: Um, when Janell came here to learn about these Edo tops, did you have [other] apprentices did you have at that time?
Hiroi: At that time… ah! I already had some apprentices, seven of them. The apprentices from Shiroishi were already here at that time. And in addition to them, um, there were a number of people, umm, who like Landis-sensei came here to learn as a hobby… Amano-san, Jin-san… umm… Suzuki-san, Zanma-san… ahh, also there was Shimamura-san, Watanabe-san… who else was there… Amano-san, Jin-san… Junna-san, Suzuki-san… and… Ah! Today, err? Kyōya-san, was he around that time? When we were in Fukuhara. Kyōya-san…
Mrs. Hiroi: Also there was the Jins.
Hiroi: So, Amano-san, Jin-san, and Zanma-san, Suzuki-san, Kyōma-san…
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. That’s about it.
Hiroi: That was about all the people doing it as a hobby. Ah, and Landis-sensei, too.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. So that’s about it.
Hiroi: Six people doing it as a hobby. And other than them, there were people doing it professionally… Ah, Shinomura-san was doing it for a hobby at first, and from that beginning went pro.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah.
Hiroi: So other than the seven from Shiroishi that I said before, the people who became professionals were the two from Marumori and today’s Tome. Umm, seven people plus two people, so nine.
Mrs. Hiroi: Mm.
Hiroi: Nine people, these were those aiming at being pros and who were pros. And the other six were amateurs doing it as a hobby. So in all there was ten– ah, there was also Morimoto-san.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. There was also Morimoto-san.
Hiroi: Right. In that case there was a lot. Fifteen or sixteen. Heh heh heh. So there was a turnover.
Paula: And were you apprentices usually men? Women?
Hiroi: Female apprentices. Umm with Landis-sensei as the first, then there was Jin-san’s wife. And… there was Yamada-san. Umm… female apprentices…
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah… yeah… that was about it.
Hiroi: Is that about it? I thought there was someone else…
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. There weren’t [that many] women.
Hiroi: Only three? It was three women.
Paula: Going pro…?
Hiroi: Mmm… probably…
Paula: Was there no one?
Hiroi: There was no one who went pro that was a hobbyist, but there are people above pro. But that doesn’t mean that they’re making a living from it…
Paula: About how old were people who became apprentices? At the beginning, at the beginning–
Hiroi: When they first came?
Hiroi: How old were they? Around that time I think everyone was in their thirties.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah.
Hiroi: Yeah… it was their thirties. Yeah. Among the men, who was the oldest?
Mrs. Hiroi: Around that time wasn’t there Minoru-kun?
Hiroi: Minoru-kun was so young at that time.
Mrs. Hiroi: Was he that young?
Hiroi: He was still a child.
Mrs. Hiroi: Was he?
Hiroi: Yeah, yeah, was he in his twenties? [Or] in his thirties.
Mrs. Hiroi: Uh, who, who was?
Hiroi: Was he in his thirties? Yeah, everyone was, weren’t they?
Mrs. Hiroi: That’s how it was. Yeah.
Hiroi: The oldest person… ah, was it Watanabe-san? Mm. Watanabe-san was the oldest. He was from a place called Marumori. And he was interesting, I have a story about him. His younger sister’s husband, he was from Marumori. And this sister, the man she married, her husband, he was the chauffeur for the mayor of Marumori. And I was often told that in Marumori they didn’t have any special [local] products, so they wanted me to make something. And at that time, when they said “Let’s make something!” in Marumori, there was one person who made kokeshi, and they asked him if he’d make them something. I spoke with them about it, but ahh– “bring him along”– [no,] I think they said to bring what I’d made and show them to see what they were.
Mrs. Hiroi: Mm. Yeah.
Hiroi: Then I brought my goods, but they were the [amusing] sort you laugh at. And that guy was someone who specialized in making a new kind of kokeshi using unfinished wood; it seems that he didn’t make them himself, but he made the unfinished wood to order, and didn’t have any experience making them himself. And I brought him with me, and at the time, because they came from the town hall… did the mayor come? The mayor, and– ah, no, it was the deputy mayor.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. The deputy mayor.
Hiroi: The deputy mayor and… umm, the section chief of the commerce and industry division. I think three people came.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. Three people came.
Hiroi: I wonder if the mayor came… In any case, three people from the town hall came to my home with his younger sister’s husband. And they came saying that they had thought about something that could be the special local product of Marumori, and [asked] whether I had anything good. At that time, uhh, and then, the thing I made was, umm, this sort of… is there a pencil? Umm, this kind of shape… [drawing] and here there’s… this top with three [other tops] attached.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. Three [tops] attached to it.
Hiroi: It’s in this shape, one, two, three. I made this kind of top… and I made this kind of top, but they didn’t understand what it was for some reason. In Japanese, it’s “marui” (round), round and there’s three trees. There are three trees in the round place, so it becomes “Marumori.” [translator’s note: the town’s name, Marumori, is comprised of the kanji for “round” and for “forest.” The character for “forest,” mori 森, is made up of three of the “tree” kanji (木), making this a pun on three round objects representing trees becoming a “round forest,” or “marumori,” the town name.]
And I made this top and show it to them and the people from town hall were surprised and said, “Ohh, this is great!” So they took it and had the person I mentioned before, Watanabe-san, make it, and it’s [now] sold as Marumori’s special product. They’re [still] making it now. They’re still making it now, though I don’t know where they’re selling it, but I hear it’s still made somewhere. So a few might still be sold somewhere, but I don’t know. I don’t know how they’re selling it. But at that time, for the first time I met Watanabe-san, and the people from town hall said that they definitely wanted me to make him an apprentice and teach him. When he came, he was quite a different age than you, wasn’t he?
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah.
Hiroi: He was the oldest [of the apprentices]. He also had a lot of experience. Even now there are a lot of shops that have the products he’s made. He might come here directly today. Yesterday he called and he said he might come. He was the oldest.
Paula: How many years are your apprentices apprenticed to you before they become independent top-makers?
Hiroi: Umm, in the end it takes ten years. Of course, it takes half a year or a year to learn the lathe. And then there’s a lot to remember. Even for someone like Maeda-kun, who can do it all now, it took ten years. It takes ten years.
Paula: Did you have any foreign apprentices after that?
Hiroi: No, after that, I didn’t any apprentices, but the people who came because they liked it were those that Landis-sensei introduced to me. They were her friends, and Newton-san, Landis-sensei had– what was it? Was he from Shichigahama? Takayama? After she returned to America, Newton-san joined [my workshop]. Newton-san came to my home for a while, but I think he moved somewhere before the [Tōhoku] earthquake. It was that he moved to Okayama or somewhere shortly after, right? So I think he wasn’t around for the earthquake, the tsunami.
And other than him, there was a person from Sweden, a person from Denmark, and– where was it? Was he Japanese? And there was another person. An American. Someone related to [Janell’s] church, I think. And they gave me wooden clogs or something. Clogs from Sweden or Denmark– I thought they were from Holland and they were like “No, you’re wrong!” and “Mine are the real thing.” I have the clogs somewhere, I could find them if I looked. And often when they came, they’d make me cherry-shaped [tops]. They said it was because they loved cherries, [so they made] cherry-shaped tops. If you travel to Sweden and Denmark, they have purple and yellow cherries, not just red ones. So I asked them to [make tops] in all kinds of colors. So they did, and I was delighted.
But they didn’t become apprentices. In that time, ummm… their term [of office], they had to switch jobs, so they had to go back to their countries. So both of them had to go back to their countries at the same time, and I never met them again. And one more person, who was it? Newton-san came every day, didn’t he? Until he moved to Okayama. He came until the earthquake happened. So he must have moved to Okayama just before that. And Landis-sensei brought him. Yeah, and Landis-sensei told him to become an apprentice, and he half-wanted to, but it was impossible for me [to make him do it]. Heh heh heh. He didn’t become an apprentice. He was a handsome person. Heh heh heh. When you met him you were like “Whoooa.” Hahahaha.