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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dolls, Figurines & Folklore In Japan


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Located on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, Fukuoka is actually two cities – Fukuoka and Hakata – rolled into one. But when the two merged in 1889, the name Fukuoka was given to both.
Today, Hakata's memory lives on in one of Fukuoka's most iconic symbols, the Hakata doll, which takes centre stage every July during Fukuoka's spectacular Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival, one of Japan's biggest celebrations.


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Made from unglazed porcelain, many experts believe that Hakata dolls, or ningyo, originated during the 17th Century when the local daimyo (feudal lord) coordinated the efforts of the Hakata region's artisans. The clay dolls were presented as gifts to local Buddhist temples and Kuroda Nagamasa, the then-ruler of Hakata. However, recent archaeological excavations suggest that the dolls may have actually originated in China. 


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"I remember the first doll I made when I was 17," said master ningyo craftsman Kuniaki Takeyoshi (pictured), as he lovingly applied the finishing touches to a samurai warrior. "From then on I was hooked. I'm as passionate about my work as I was 53 years ago, although hopefully my skills 



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Fashioned from locally sourced white clay, the lifelike warrior was intricately detailed, with flowing robes and a trademark topknot hairstyle. It had taken almost three weeks, but Takeyoshi's latest creation was finally nearing completion.


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The first step of ningyo production is to sculpt the figure out of clay using a knife and spatula; the insides are hollowed out to make the doll lighter. The figure then dries outside for 10 days and is baked in a kiln at 900 degrees for eight hours. Finally, vegetable pigment-based paints are used to add colour. 


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The finest quality ningyo are renowned for their elegant and refined appearance, with a subtle beauty that comes from the firing, carving and colouring process. Some are unique, some are mass-produced. "Most dolls are depictions of famous historical characters," Takeyoshi explained. "There are bijin (beautiful women), kabuki players (a classical Japanese dance-drama), characters from noh (musical dramas), religious and legendary figures, sumo, samurai and children." 


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Craftsmen often use real gold and silver powder to decorate the more expensive dolls.


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"I scrape the gold with fish teeth to make it shiny," Takeyoshi said. "It's an old technique. In the past I used dog's teeth, but those are harder to come by these days." Takeyoshi's dolls sell in outlets across Japan for up to 1.6 million yen.


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Every July, ningyo makers try their hand at larger crafts during Fukuoka's 15-day Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival. On 1 July, floats called kazariyamakasa are set up in different parts of the city. Made by master craftsmen such as Takeyoshi, these floats are about 16m high and sumptuously decorated with magnificent dolls that illustrate various legends or historical tales. 


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The festival culminates with the 5km-long Oiyama race. Starting at 4:59 am on 15 July, seven teams of about 30 men called nagare race through the streets of Fukuoka carrying the kakiyamakasa on their shoulders. The fastest team wins.


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Fukuoka's visitors bureau also offers a four-hour traditional Hakata craft tour, during which visitors can see ningyo being made and try painting a doll for themselves. (Daniel Allen)

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