Earthenware dolls and bells originated in areas with good clay, such as the Fushimi district of Kyoto.

Some, called hineri (pinched) dolls, are shaped by hand, but most are made from molds of earth or plaster. They are then dried, fired at low heat and decorated with paint over a base of white gofun (calcium carbonate powder.)

Nimble fingers: Imado-yaki artisan Yuichiro Shirai carves a small figurine.
Nimble fingers: Imado-yaki artisan Yuichiro Shirai carves a small figurine.

Reverence for the soil that nourishes life has always been deeply rooted in Japan, where agriculture was central to daily life. Even today, earthenware objects are available to worshippers at many shrines. Earthenware whistles were thought to calm certain afflictions in children; the most popular ones are in the shape of pigeons, but there are also owls, blowfish and a variety of others.1. Manju-kui (Kyoto)

This Fushimi clay doll recalls the story of a child who was asked, “Whom do you love more, your mother or your father? In reply, the child broke a bean-jam bun in two, asking, “Which half is tastier?” The figure expresses the wish for similar wisdom in one’s own child.

2. Harukoma (Yamagata Pref.)

This is one of over 200 varieties of Sagara doll, which is among the three major dolls of the Tohoku region of Japan. The figure depicts one of the wandering entertainers who would go door to door at the new year, singing and dancing while holding a prop shaped like a horse’s head.

3. Dorei (Gifu Pref.)

Brightly colored earthenware bells shaped like pots were sold in the precincts of Mieji temple in Gifu Prefecture. Originally they were hung in the silkworm room and rung to drive off mice. Other earthenware bells may be shaped like a hōju magic jewel (also see folk toy No. 8) or a straw rice bale.

4. Sanbaso (Miyagi Pref.)

Tsutsumi dolls, which evolved from Tsutsumi pottery in the mid-Edo Period (1603-1868), were modeled after kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, high-ranking courtesans and others depicted in ukiyo-e prints. Sanbaso is the name of a celebratory dance performed by kyogen and kabuki actors.

5. Okamura Tenjin (Kanagawa Pref.)

Yokohama’s Okamura Tenmangu shrine, where this doll is offered, is dedicated to the Heian Period (794-1185) scholar Sugawara no Michizane, today revered as Tenman Tenjin, the god of learning. If you sleep with the figure next to your pillow, the story goes, your wish will be fulfilled.

6. Hato-bue (Aomori Pref.)

Shitagawara pottery is famous for its earthenware whistles. These were inspired by the Daoist belief that convulsions and stomachaches in children were caused by three “pests” that lived inside the body, and could be cured by licking a piece of earth.

7. Momotaro shinzo (Fukui Pref.)

This good-luck charm depicts the folk hero Momotaro (“Peach Boy”) as a god. It is modeled on a carving found in the former main hall of Tsuruga’s Kehi Shrine. The hall, a designated National Treasure, was destroyed in World War II air raids.

Practically Noah's Ark: Foxes are one of the 90 types of dolls Shirai and his wife, Rihoko, make at their workshop.
Practically Noah’s Ark: Foxes are one of the 90 types of dolls Shirai and his wife, Rihoko, make at their workshop.

8. Hoju-zaru (Saga Pref.)

Nogomi clay dolls were first made in Kashima after World War II. They are well known, having been depicted on Japan’s New Year’s postage stamps three times. The monkey holds a magical jewel that makes one’s wishes comes true.

9. Zukkyan-kyan (Nagasaki Pref.)

The name of this Koga doll, zukkyan-kyan, means “riding piggyback” in the Nagasaki dialect. Derived from the sound of the music played during festivals at Suwa Shrine, the word may be related to the custom of children riding on the shoulders of adults at those times.

10. Yuki-usagi (Nagano Pref.)

This heartwarming rabbit is a Nakano doll, a variety that has become very popular among collectors in recent years. Since these dolls are not sold in stores, fans gather from all over Japan for the yearly Nakano Doll Market, and buy them by lottery.

Chikako Shimizu contributed the text for this article. This is the second installment in a three-part series on Japanese folk toys.

Artisan Profile

Yuichiro Shirai:

Imado-yaki Shirai is located on a quiet street near the Sumida River, 15 minutes’ walk from Asakusa Station.

Upon opening the sliding door at the entrance, one is immediately struck by the dolls arrayed on shelves. The foxes, sparrows and Chinese zodiac monkeys seem to resemble their maker, Yuichiro Shirai, in their charming reserve.

Including those made for temples and shrines to offer at festivals, Shirai and his wife, Rihoko, currently produce about 90 kinds of dolls. The cat doll (show below left) is Shirai’s version of the original Imado-ware beckoning-cat figure depicted in a woodblock print by the famous Edo Period artist Utagawa Hiroshige. The circle-and-cross mark inscribed on its hindquarters symbolizes enclosing good fortune and not allowing it to escape.

Shirai explains, “I worked from Hiroshige’s print and Edo Period molds of sitting cats passed down in my family, and added my own ideas.”

At present, Shirai’s cat doll is so popular that it takes about two years to receive one after ordering, and the waiting list is still growing.

Imado 1-2-18, Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0024; 03-3872-5277; 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; closed Mon.-Thurs. and irregularly

For more insight into Japan’s culture, arts and lifestyle, visit int.kateigaho.com.

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