In Kogei no Sato (Traditional Craft Village) in Akiu, Sendai, one can get to know and experience old Japanese handicraft techniques in nine workshops. Together with a Japanese friend, I visited two workshops: one for kokeshi (Japanese wooden dolls) and one for koma (wooden spinning top).
The night before our trip, I wanted to practice a bit and develop a look for the Kokeshi so that I would not approach the whole thing haphazardly and unprepared the next day. (This is not absolutely necessary, you can also be inspired in the workshop by the many existing dolls and just try it.) But it is still something different, whether you paint with acrylic on paper or with paint on wood. And so the Kokeshi looked quite different in the end.
We went to the Ganguan kokeshi shop where wooden kokeshi dolls of the pagoda dogwood tree are turned and then painted with black and red (not green as in my drawing). This Kokeshi is called Enakichi Kokeshi, kokeshi in the Sakunami style (Sakunami = an area in Sendai). The shokunin (master) of this workshop is Akira Suzuki. He decided to combine traditional designs with the new idea of kawaii (cute).
After a short introduction, we started to paint our own untreated wooden kokeshi. I would have wished to have some paper or sample piece of wood available to get familiar with the brush and the paint. We could at least find some papers in our pockets that we could practice on. In general, the black colour (a certain varnish or wood stain – I don’t know exactly what it is) is easier to handle than the red one, where the paint spreads and washes out more often. But you can not really predict how the colour will behave – it depends a lot on the wood, which as a natural product is slightly different everywhere. The more liquid the paint and the more paint in the brush, probably the higher is the risk that there are dirty spots (later I noted something similar with the wooden spinning top).
Actually, as can be seen in the drawing, I wanted to paint stripes on my kokeshi, but that was reserved for the shokunin as we were told.
While painting, I held the kokeshi in my left hand and supported my right, the brush leading hand on it. This position creates a good grip and a steady hand, which is especially useful for painting details. For more dynamic shapes and lines, however, it is recommended not to support the hand and hold the brush a bit further back.
In the end the wooden figure was covered with a protective lacquer.
Afterwards, we visited the Onkomaya Hiroi shop, where you can find many different kinds of wooden spinning tops – in some cases, you would not expect at first glance that they are spinning tops.
This simple toy has a long tradition in Japan and was especially popular in the Edo period. The Edo koma developed in the 18th century when the Zashiki koma for anyone arose from the Kyokugoma, with which feats can be performed.
Michiaki Hiroi, who is still running the shop with his apprentices, is already 86 years old (born 1933). He comes from a koma craft family and continues this rare tradition with his brother, who lives in Yokohama.
The shokunin showed us how to turn a spinning top and then I was allowed to polish and paint it. I made some mistakes that might have been avoided if he had given me some advice beforehand. Here is why: The spinning top was rotating all the time so that the lines always looked nice and clean. That’s why I did not notice that the colours were washing out heavily. For a while, I was surprised that the red stripe was getting wider and wider. Since I wanted to have beautiful edges, I traced the apparently wide-dissolved strips with new paint, which was completely counterproductive, because:
The more paint is applied, the more it washes out.
That’s why you should be careful when you want to apply several colours on top of each other (which is not necessarily recommended). It is best to let the previously painted strips dry a bit before, take only a little bit of paint and touch the spinning top with the brush only for a very short time.
The longer the brush touches the surface, obviously the more paint is applied, and the more dissolves in the end.