Janell, determined to travel to Japan one last time to see her many friends and attend her homecoming at Migyagi Gakuin, invited Paula and Malina to join her so that they could interview Hiroi in person and share in the Japan side of the collection’s history. After several months of funding inquiries and a successful Kickstarter campaign, Paula and Malina were able to travel with Janell for a week in May of 2014 to northern Japan with the support of the University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies and Kickstarter contributors. There they visited Hiroi at his home in Akiu kōgei no sato 秋保工芸の里 (Akiu Craft Village) and were introduced to his artisanry in person.
These photos show Hiroi-sensei’s home, store, and workshop. He demonstrated how to spin various tops. He also explained the legends and histories behind the design of each top.
Hiroi-sensei has appeared many times in Japanese newspapers. Below is a translation of an article entitled “Spreading the charm of 7 workshops gathered together:
Akiu Craft Village, open for 20 years” that ran June 23, 2008 in the newspaper Kahoku shinpō. See the original Japanese article at the link below.
Spreading the charm of 7 workshops gathered together: Akiu Craft Village, open for 20 years
First collective exhibition
“We want to communicate the culture of artisans.”
Akiu Craft Village (Sendai, Taihaku Ward, Akiu) commemorates its 20th anniversary. The business association of Akiu Craft village, formed by its artisans, will hold their first-ever collective exhibition at Aoba Ward’s Tōhoku Institute of Technology Ichiban Lobby from June 13-25. The exhibition aims to convey the appeal of the traditional crafts in connection with the “Sendai/Miyagi Destination Campaign (DC)” tour bus advertisements, which kicks off in October.
The artisans of the seven workshops in the craft village are exhibiting a total of seventy-six works they have made, including Sendai chests of drawers (tansu 箪笥), kokeshi dolls, tops. Thenstructors and students at the Institute of Technology will hold a a panel demonstrating the working processes of various artisans and their workshop settings. Those attending will also have a chance to make tops and paint at a demo corner.
Hiroi Michiaki (75), the head of the Akiu Association, explained the goal of opening the exhibition, stating, “At the Craft Village our homes and workshops are together, and it’s a valuable space where you can see what an artisan’s life is like. Of course, we want both tourists and people of Sendai to know what Sendai’s artisan culture is like.”
Akiu Craft Village was established with the support of Miyagi Prefecture and the city of Sendai in April 1988. The artisans of the Village have continued to produce art and craft work with the goal of reviving local life skills . This year, to celebrate the 20th anniversary, they are also planning other events besides this collective exhibition. From the end of the July to the end of August, they will open painting workshops aimed for families. During the Sendai/Miyagi Destination Campaign period, they will also have the exhibition works in their workshops and hold concerts.
Kumano Akira (50), the owner of Kumanodō, a Sendai tansu shop, noted, “In Sendai, the number of artisans has been decreasing, and children and younger generations don’t have as many opportunities to experience handmade crafts. In Akiu, I want to increase the number of hardworking artisans.”
Hiroi-sensei has appeared many times in Japanese newspapers. Below is a translation of an article entitled “Seven Artisans Compete with New “Sendai Fortune” Products” that ran December 27, 2008 in the newspaper Kahoku shinpō. See the original Japanese article at the link below.
Nice to meet you. I’m a kokeshi who is proud of my smile.
Akiu Craft Village
Seven Artisans Compete with New “Sendai Fortune” Products
The Akiu Craft Village of Akiu, Taihaku Ward, Sendai City will begin selling a new kokeshi this January called “Sendai Fortune.” It was so-named by the seven artisans of Akiu, who made it in the image of a woman calling upon luck. It is being sold as a new character made with a modern twist on traditional arts. The Sendai Luck ranges in size up to about 10 cm tall. They have kokeshi in the shape of smiling girls and based on the zodiac ox. Hiroi Michiaki (75) and the other artisans of the Craft Village made the doll to invite luck, modeling it on the wife of Fukusuke (god of luck).
When kokeshi-making began to feel as though it had hit a slump, Hiroi called on his artisan colleagues. By challenging one another, they aim to increase their technical skills and imbue their wooden products with a new appeal.
The Sendai Fortune kokeshi cost around 2,000-3,000 yen. This time they’ve made about 100 kokeshi, and the Craft Village opens up for sales from January 1-4, 10AM-4PM. In addition, there will be bamboo stilts (takeuma), wooden paddle games (hagoita), and traditional kites (surume tenbata) on sale.
According to Hiroi, “We want to create products that make people excited, and in the future, too, have the luck of Sendai active in many places through the Craft Village’s original character.” Hiroi’s contact information is 022 (398) 2770.
Hiroi-sensei has appeared many times in Japanese newspapers. Below is a translation of an article entitled “Craft Village Calls for Four Apprentices” that ran November 11, 2012 in the newspaper Kahoku shinpō. See the original Japanese article at the link below.
At workshops in “Akiu Craft Village” in Sendai’s Taihaku Ward, four people in their 20s and 30s have become apprentices. In order to address the lack of successors to their crafts, artisans have welcomed and supported the country’s emergency job creation situation.
They also hope to borrow the energy of these young people to revitalize efforts to increase the dwindling number of visitors who come to Akiu Craft Village.
“A Chance to Train a Successor”
Both the Ganguan Kokeshi Store and the Onkomaya Hiroi Edo tops workshop have acquired two apprentices. The Sendai tansu shop Kumandō and tea utensil Umoregi* shop also have taken on apprentices.
Sekino Akiko (age 39, Taihaku Ward), a part-time instructor at an elementary school in Sendai who has become an apprentice at Ganguan, began visiting Akiu Craft Village once or twice during months off starting three years ago. Sekino decided to become an apprentice, saying, “I would like to open a workshop and convey to children how wonderful wooden toys are.”
On the 7th of this month, Sekino began learning to paint. By using kokeshi artisan Suzuki Akira (52)’s models as reference, Sekino is starting to learn how to paint eyebrows, eyes, and noses. Sekino worried, “Starting the brushwork is incredibly difficult”; to which Suzuki responded “Your own feelings are passed through the brush and appear in the work,” communicating the importance of being aware of your own state of mind while working.
Sales are in a slump, and more than half of the 9 shops at the Craft Village have no apprentices. The partnership of artisans, alarmed by this, solicited the apprentices using project assistance from the government that can guarantee at most one year and five months’ wages for them.
“It takes a short while to come into one’s own as an artisan, about a year and a half,” said Hiroi, the head of the project partnership, “but it would be great if we had a chance to train the artisans of the future.”
In addition to taking those who come to Akiu Craft Village on tours, Sekino will be making new kokeshi characters and has an important position in building up interest in the Craft Village.
Dyeing and Weaving Atelier Tsuru is also recruiting apprentices now. People who would like to apply can do so through the job placement office or contact the Association representative at 022 (398) 2770.
*Translator’s note: This is an error. The Umoregi shop sells items crafted from bogwood and the Kobokusha Store sells tea utensils.
Hiroi-sensei has appeared many times in Japanese newspapers. Below is a translation of an article entitled “Looking Forward to the Creation of “Akiu Products” that ran April 20, 2004 in the newspaper Kahoku shinpō. See the original Japanese article at the link below.
Looking Forward to the Creation of “Akiu Products”
Steady Work on Making a Forest for Kokeshi
Sendai City/Akiu Craft Village Collaboration
In an attempt to promote the local woodworking industry, Sendai City is embarking on a “kokeshi forest”-making project in the town of Akiu’s Taihaku ward. In collaboration with Akiu Craft Village, painted maple and dogwood saplings will be planted; those trees will become the pulpwood for traditional craft goods. Their aim is to eventually have kokeshi that are entirely made from “Akiu Products,” and to facilitate that, a planting event, for which city residents can volunteer, is planned for May 5  .
Pulpwood trees to be planted this year, too, on May 5
Dogwood trees are native to the Akiu area, but the region is very marshy, making logging work very difficult. Because of this, Hiroi Michiaki (age 70), an artisan of Akiu Craft Village who makes kokeshi, is supplied with woodchips made by the lumber workers of Miyagi Prefecture’s Kunomori Ward for his work.
However, for a number of years lumber imports have been increasing and the amount of woodchip production has gone down; dogwood preservation, too, is becoming more difficult. Planning the pulpwood through their own supply efforts, Sendai and Akiu began the “kokeshi forest” project in May of last year. The city-owned forests near the Craft Village are roughly 6 hectares, and they plan to plant about 10,000 saplings over the course of 6 years, finishing in 2008. In one year, they have planted 1,400 dogwood trees.
It’s projected it will take roughly 15 to 20 years for the trees to grow into usable materials, but Hiroi-san has said, “If the next generation of artisans is able to use local dogwood to make kokeshi and other goods, I would be happy,” and is watching over the saplings affectionately.
The planting event, sponsored by the joint Sendai and Craft Village project, will be held on the 5th and is recruiting volunteers to help the artisans plant 1,500 saplings in the city-owned forest area. They also plan to hold cultural exchange events, with woodworking workshops and atelier tours.
The Sendai City Agriculture, Forestry, and Public Works Division stated, “Through the collaboration of the artisans and city residents on this forestation project, we hope to assure the continuation of traditional arts and to deepen our residents’ understanding of forestry and woodworking traditions.”
There are 100 volunteer positions available on a first come, first serve basis. To volunteer, contact the Sendai City Agriculture, Forestry, and Public Works Division’s Forestry Branch at 020 (214) 8264.
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.
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.
What does making wooden tops look like? How do they use the lathe to make this kind of art? Below we feature three videos of Hiroi-sensei and his apprentice, Maeda, at work, along with photographs of the present-day Hiroi workshop where Hiroi and Maeda have worked on the lathe throughout the years. 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. Maeda has been Hiroi-sensei’s apprentice for over ten years and will inherit Hiroi-sensei’s shop.
You can listen to and read an interview with Hiroi on his own early apprenticeship here.
In this interview segment, Hiroi-sensei speaks briefly about the establishment of the Akiu Craft Park and the types of artisans who live and work there. You can visit the official webpage for Akiu at this link, which explains about the many artisans working there. The page also includes an option to translate it (via machine) into foreign languages.
Akiu Craft Park is about 35-40 minutes by bus from Sendai, Japan, located in the small town of Akiu. From Sendai station, board the bus going towards Kawasaki-machi (かわさきまち行) at the #63 bus stop, getting off at Akiu kōgei no sato (秋保工芸の里). This will be the purple Takeya tours bus, the タケヤ交通＜秋保・川崎 仙台西部ライナ＞. Some schedule changes may occur in winter months.
A scanned version of the Akiu Craft park pamphlet is uploaded in the Media section of our page.
[Segment 1, 00:30:07]
Paula Curtis: And let’s talk a little about Akiu. When did you start living at Akiu Craft Park?
Hiroi Michiaki: It was about twenty-five years ago. That was from when it opened, but some years before that, about three years, ummm about twenty–eight years ago, I guess. I was asked “We’re going to make something like a craft village in Miyagi prefecture, so won’t you join us?” And many [artisans] came together and talked, came to the prefecture and talked. In the town it had gradually become difficult to do our work, you know? Because it was loud, or the garbage would pile up, it was said to be a nuisance, and so it became difficult to do our work, and the topic came up that we wanted leave the town and make a place where no one would say anything [about it] to us. And not just people doing the same occupation, but people of many different types of work joined us. And we negotiated with the prefecture and it slowly moved along. Akiu wasn’t the city of Sendai, it was the town of Akiu. And [we negotiated with] the town of Akiu, with Akiu and the prefecture, and there was a mountain, so we made it there, and it was said that we should all move there. There were about twenty, twenty of us at the beginning. And gradually we ended up with about twelve houses in the end, I think. We had the land for twelve homes, but in the end about eight were constructed and there were four open lots. And after one more person came, and that person bought and combined two lots. Even now there’s two left. Umm… in the end, when we opened—huh? Wait. Did Tsuruko-san buy it after we opened? There were eight houses when we opened, eight people. And two or three years later another house went up and we were nine houses. And now it’s nine houses. And it’s been the same ever since.
Paula: What kind of specialties did the other artists have?
Hiroi: Umm… ah, it’s easiest to understand if you look at the pamphlet… You’ll see here. Ahh this is a kokeshi maker. The one next door to here. And this is us. And this is that one.
[Segment 2, 00:00:00]
Hiroi: These are tea ceremony utensils. He makes tea ceremony utensils. And then there’s– like the one over there, the cabinet next to the toilet– Sendai [style] cabinets. Next to [the tea ceremony person] there’s a man who does this carving. Across from him is the woman who came later [after we set up Akiu Craft village], who does textiles. She joined us after. And next to her of course is a kokeshi maker. That person is originally from Akiu and made kokeshi in Akiu. He’s the only person originally from here.
And next to him is a bogwood [carver], and he’s also now the only person in the entire country [who has that skill]. He’s called a “bogwood artisan” [umoregi saiku]. This is something particular to Sendai… there’s something called “brown coal” (lignite) that [is formed] before it becomes coal, and wood that is buried in and mixes with that brown coal– it comes from the brown coal class [of materials]– what should I call it? It’s more or less this is wood that has been buried and carbonized. If you carve it into things it’s gorgeous, so it’s a famous thing from Sendai, and there used to be a number of artisans [who carved bogwood], but now there’s only one.
And this [other] one is next to him, and he’s a, you know, sensei of traditional kokeshi. When I was taught [kokeshi making] it was Wagatsuma-san. Is he in this area now? So, for people of the same craft it’s two houses, two kokeshi makers, or is it three? Ahh. There’s three doing kokeshi. Oh, I also did it, so it’s four. Well, at any rate there’s a lot of kokeshi makers. Mm. Other than the kokeshi makers there’s one, two, three, four houses. Mm five? And there were four places that did kokeshi, but not just kokeshi but other pieces that were made using the lathe, well, including Edo tops, and there were four of them. And that’s nine.