Tag Archives: Akiu

Making tops: Now

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.





Hiroi and the Life of the Artisan

In this interview segment, Hiroi-sensei describes the life of a woodworking artisan and the difficulty of maintaining Japanese traditional arts in the modern world.



Paula Curtis: What are some of the biggest difficulties you have encountered working as an artisan?

Hiroi Michiaki: The most difficult thing… it’s nothing but difficult things, right? (laughs) There’s nothing that’s easy. Saying which one is most difficult– it’s all difficult. On the other hand, the thing that makes me most happy is when people who buy my tops enjoy them. If they go “Woooow!” I’m so happy. Other than that, every day I’m suffering. (grins)

Paula: (laughs) Those, well, difficult things, of course you said there are a lot of them, but did they change a lot over time? What was difficult–doing business? Selling them?

Hiroi: Well, the difficulty of being an artisan, the more you do it the more difficult it becomes. Other than that, selling them, I’m bad at selling them. So, yeah, I’m always at a loss.

Paula: Do you feel that artisanal professions are in danger of dying out? Why do you think that is?

Hiroi: Ah! Yes. This is the thing that troubles me most. Umm… why it is that Japan takes artisans for granted. If there are no artisans, I don’t think that they can even established Japan’s large businesses, but for some reason artisans are looked down upon and taken for granted. Umm…  people in administration also think little of artisans and don’t support us. I’m not saying we want [more] support, but I think we want them to value us more.

But Japan right now is developing only this one [type of] skill, and maybe the bottom, you’d call it, artisans are definitely at the very bottom [of those priorities]. Artisans make things [to be used], and at this time [those things] are made in great quantities, so large companies are established. And if those artisans gradually disappear, someone will say “Let’s [make] this thing,” and they probably won’t be able to. So there are a lot of artisans of different occupations, but in any case I want those people who are artisans to be valued more. That’s my wish.

Paula: Do you have a lot of apprentices compared to the past?

Hiroi: Ahh, yeah. So, um, this is, well, as for why apprentices increased, it’s because I was doing traditional kokeshi, umm… and there were a number of people doing kokeshi. So there were a lot of people who gathered to do that. And I was painting kokeshi, and selling them, selling them to collectors, and people were saying difficult things to me like “that’s wrong,” “this is wrong,” and I was very troubled, but I did my best at it, and became able to [make them] to a certain extent.

My name was published in kokeshi books, too. And at that time, I realized, “Ahh, in my home there was something even more precious than kokeshi.” There were a lot of kokeshi makers, and they would definitely survive [in the future], but the Edo tops of my family, there was only one house [that made those] in all of Japan. All of the world. The ones who inherited that were only me and my younger brother. Kokeshi [makers] weren’t like us, who were only one family, there were had hundreds, thousands. I realized that it would be impossible to revive it and leave it behind [after we died]. So I thought to myself that I had to increase our apprentices. And young heirs to kokeshi maker families… they came to me, and those young people said “Can’t we make a living not just doing the kokeshi from before?” and “I want you to teach me other things.”

At that time, there was another person here like Maeda-kun whom I was teaching. He was the son of a kokeshi maker, someone from Obara Onsen, he was someone famous, and this was his child. He was named Yūsuke, Honda Yūsuke. That was in Shiroishi, and the young sons of the kokeshi makers of the Yajirō [style] lineage came together and I had seven [apprentices]. And since Yūsuke said “I’m learning [Edo top making] right now at this place,” everyone else said they wanted to, too. And so they [all] came saying, “Will you teach us?” It was like asking if it’s true and going “It’s true!” And he was saying “Come with me everyone!” Those seven came to Shiroishi and I ended up teaching them.

Well then, my goods are different from kokeshi, and there’s a lot of different kinds, and you have to want to enjoy yourself, so first it was like “If you come to my home, it’s not work, it’s more like fun.” And everyone was like “Whaaat!” and was really surprised. Heh heh heh. One person really took that seriously and messed around and found a girlfriend and got married. Haha.

Now, for kokeshi, the Yajirō line is the best one, but he couldn’t really make tops well. He’d been learning for almost half a year but couldn’t make them. And kokeshi, well, his parents were kokeshi makers, so, first, first it was best for him to do kokeshi [instead of tops]. So he put all his efforts into kokeshi. And everyone else was doing tops. And of course I wondered if their parents were angry, if they were complaining. I thought, “I’m teaching their precious heirs unnecessary things!” Surely they must have been mad. But their parents all came and said “Please take care of them,” and bowed their heads to me. All seven. Contrary to it all, I was the surprised one. “Ahh this is serious,” I thought, and put my all into teaching them. I think usually one person can remember about a hundred types [of tops].

Paula: Umm, about these artisanal occupations disappearing, what do you think should be done about that? So that they become more popular?

Hiroi: Ahh. Yeah.

Paula: Do you think there’s anything that can be done?

Hiroi: I think it would be really good if they were popular. It’s regrettable that in Japan there’s not a system for that. Like I said before, if important people would take note of us artisans, wouldn’t a bit more traditional things and skills survive? And young people becoming artisans–you know there’s quite a lot of young people who want to become artisans But the world of artisans is difficult. And artisans are quite stubborn. And people are scared of that popular image, that they can’t get used to that [sort of life]. Heh heh heh. there are quite a lot of people who say “I really want to do that…” So I thought [it would be good if] it was easier for those people to become accustomed to it. I thought [to myself] “I want to teach them.” Umm… last year, a year and a half ago, in Sendai, our Craft Village, we wanted to do successor training, so the city gave us money. And five young people came.

And, ah– the city gave us wages. And we got quite a bit of money as an honorarium, too. It went on for a year and a half and it ended in March of this year. In the end those who stayed on were one person with Kotake-san, and Maeda-kun here with me, and another person, Misa-chan, a girl. Three of them were left. I think that if something like that [program] went on a little longer we’d have more young people come. And if they did it without such strict conditions. This time around, the conditions weren’t so tough, and that was good. Five people came and three stayed. I think that’s a huge success.

And doing something like that again, not just with the city, but with the prefecture, the country, if they did that, I think the number of young successors really go up. And, well, among the same artisans, places with money, they can steadily support young people themselves. Places like mine that don’t have any money, because of that people like Maeda-kun are doing part-time jobs but also want to learn, so they come [to us]. I think people like that can become the real thing. So I think that if [the government] extended its hand more to places like that, more young people could be trained, and I feel like Japan, too, would be a richer place for it.







ポーラ:(laughs) その、まぁあの難しいことが、もちろん、多いと、おっしゃいましたが、まぁあの時間とともに、ま、多少変化しましたか。何が難しいか、あのその、ビジネスとか、売るのとか。














廣井: そういうのがあると本当いいんですけどねえ。残念なことに日本にはまだそういう制度ないし。もうちょっと、偉い人がさっきも言ったように職人に、えぇ、こう、目を向けてくれれば、少しは、伝統的なものとか、技術が、残るんじゃないかな。で、若い人も、職人に、結構職人になりたい若い人いるんですよね。でも、職人の世界って難しい。で職人っていうのは頑固でなかなか。こう、馴染めないっていう、そっちのイメージの方が多くて恐ろしがってね、へへへ。なかなか『やりたくてもなぁ・・・』っていう人結構多いんですよね。だから、そういう人たちにね、もっとこう、スムーズに馴染んでもらって。育てたいな、と思っていたんですけど。ええと、去年ね、ええと一年半、仙台市で、この工芸の里で、後継者の育成をしようっていうことで市の、市がお金を出してくれて。で五人、入れたんですね若い人を。



About Akiu Craft Park

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.



秋保工芸の里は宮城県の仙台市からバスで35〜40分ほど離れた小さな町、秋保にある。仙台駅からは63番のバス停で、かわさきまち行に乗り、秋保工芸の里で下車。タケヤ交通<秋保・川崎 仙台西部ライナー> 冬季に関しては時刻表に変動あり。



[Segment 1, 00:30:07]





[Segment 2, 00:00:00]

廣井:これはあのお茶の道具。茶道具を作っている人なんですけど。あとそれからそっちの向かいの・・・トイレの脇が箪笥、仙台箪笥。で、その隣がこの彫刻、やっている人で。その向かいっ側の人がこれ後から入ってきた織物をやってる人。この人が後から入ってきたんですけど。でその隣がやっぱりこけし屋さん。この人は元々 秋保の人で。で秋保でこけしを作って、いた人なんですよね。で地元の人、ただ一人なんですけど。


で、これ、これがその隣で、これがほら、あのう、伝統こけしの先生。私が教わった先生のところ、我妻さんってね。でこの近辺なのか、今。だからあのう、同業の方は二軒、こけし屋さん・・・あ二軒、三軒か。あぁ。こけしやってた人は三軒、あぁ俺もやってたから四軒か。ま、こけし屋さんが多いね。うん。こけし屋さん以外が一店、二店、三軒、四軒。んー五軒か。でこけしやってた 、こけしばかりでなく、こういう轆轤っていうんで色々、ま江戸独楽も含めてですけど、そういうのが四軒で。で九軒ですね。