Monday, June 27, 2011

(11) Hagoita –stealing a glimpse into the world of Kabuki

A typical hagoita

[Grigoris] I have written elsewhere (and in all probability, I will write again and again) that one of my favorite places in Tokyo are the areas that used to be the city’s old downtown district, the ones the Japanese call shitamachi (下町) and that the heart of these areas was, for a multitude of reasons, the Buddhist temple Sensoji (浅草寺). According to a long tradition, the grounds of Sensoji host many events every year; these are not religious events and the reason they are held here is because of the temple’s position as a center of the area’s activity and because the temple has enough space to accommodate the tens of stands/improvised stores that operate during the events. This would be the right place to mention that these events are more often than not, bazaars for specific items or plants.

One of the most famous of these bazaars (although, come to think of it, they are all famous!) is the hagoita fair that takes place once a year in mid-December (17-19). The hagoita (羽子板) is an object that once had a certain functionality as a racket for the traditional game of hanetsuki (羽根突き, a Japanese version of badminton) but which, for the last 150 years, is being used mostly as a decoration (and, like many traditional Japanese objects) as a good luck charm. Although one can use its surface to depict various things, the most common themes come from the world of Kabuki theater –in essence, the hagoita (like the actors’ portraits in Ukiyo-e woodblock prints) are the predecessors of today’s publicity stills, a very important weapon in the arsenal of every popular actor.

What is of particular interest is the way the image is created and presented on the wooden base/racket. The artist/craftsman uses all kinds of materials like cotton, fabrics, paper etc. to create a portrait (most frequently, a bust) in relief and there are times were the details are very impressive. Also, because the roles and the faces that are depicted on the hagoita are well-known to everybody, the creators of the hagoita always try to remain true to the elements that characterize each role, including the make-up, the shades of the colors in the dresses, the objects that the character carries etc.

I won’t go into further details on the hagoita; I just wanted to mention a few things so you could know what it is that I’m talking about. Personally, though, I’d suggest to anyone visiting Tokyo to locate a shop selling hagoita (there are a few in the area I mentioned above –Asakusa, Ueno and surrounds), to see them from up close and to pay attention to their fascinating details. In my opinion, they are among the most beautiful and original traditional decorations; if nothing else, the craftsmanship involved (they are handmade from start to finish) makes them an excellent conversation piece while at the same time, since their themes come almost exclusively from the Kabuki, most people will find them really “classic” (especially the people who still feel that Japan is, basically, kimono and samurai).

One of the stalls at the Hagoita Ichi in Asakusa

Acknowledging the futility of the venture, I can’t but mention a few words about the fair itself, the Hagoita Ichi (羽子板市). As is usually the case, the experience of actually being in that particular place on these particular days goes far beyond the appreciation of the craftsmanship of the hagoita creators or the intention to buy one for himself or as a gift. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a bazaar, a commercial event and that is obvious from every voice and gesture of the people in the 50 or so stands that crowd the grounds around Sensoji. But, like I wrote in a previous post (“Asakusa?”) during the fair, the place feels different and loses the sense of the popular tourist destination; I obviously don’t know how things were during the Edo days but what you see in the Hagoita Ichi isn’t exactly today’s Tokyo either.

What makes things less tourist-y (although, like I said, not any less commercial; it is a bazaar after all) is that the Hagoita Ichi is for the Japanese themselves. Of course, if some foreign tourist happens to be there, it’s almost certain that he will get swept by the crowds and will probably leave the area with a hagoita in his luggage, but in truth the bazaar is for the Japanese and everything happens with no particular interest for tourists. All the calls from the vendors are in Japanese, there bargaining going on all the time (it’s strange but true: during these fairs, the Japanese bypass their usual dignified and collected self and they bargain wildly while at the same time resorting to theatrics like “You’re killing me!” “I’m closing the shop down and going home” etc.), while in many stands, each buy is accompanied by a quite noisy ritual involving shouts and hand-clapping for the benefit of the new client.

Interspersed among the hagoita shops/stands one can also find the ubiquitous in all Japanese gatherings that involve more than five people and last for more than ten minutes, food stalls. Bear in mind though that when I say “food” here, I mean fair food which, for me, is the most tasty stuff one can find in Japan; my apologies to all the gourmets who keep insisting about the merits of kaiseki (懐石) with its tens of tiny plates and the extremely sophisticated presentation that echoes the Japanese sensitivity to the changing of season but the fair/festival food (the closest thing the Japanese have to what Americans call “soul food”) is much tastier, equally well prepared (in its own way) and all the same truly Japanese.

I left that day with a full stomach and a hagoita in my backpack; it’s the one I have used to accompany the text you are reading. The person depicted is the main character from one of Kabuki’s most classic plays, Kamakura Gongorou Kagemasa (鎌倉権五郎景政) and the title of the play is Shibaraku (); but let’s not get too much into Kabuki this time. What I didn’t know that day was that after a few months, Atsuko would be lucky enough to meet in person one of the most interesting characters I spotted that day in the Hagoita Ichi. Dear, would you care to carry on?

[Atsuko] From July onwards, the Japanese television broadcasting system will convert to digital. And from the next year, the new digital signal will be broadcasted by the Sky Tree, a 634m high tower being built in the eastern part of Tokyo; this construction is already on its way to becoming one of the city’s landmarks and has grabbed the attention of the area’s visitors.

Recently, I visited an area near the spot where the Sky Tree is; the area is called Kojima and it was one of the entertainment districts of old Tokyo, with plenty of geisha houses and tea-shops (i.e. houses of assignation). Even today, you can feel a distinct old downtown atmosphere in that area (what we call “shitamachi”) with lots of small houses and meandering alleyways.

Lost among these narrow streets and alleys, there is a small museum dedicated to the hagoita (羽子板) an object that started out as a racket for the traditional badminton-like game called hanetsuki (羽根突き) but which nowadays is used as a decoration depicting actors and roles from the Kabuki theater. The place hosting the museum was for many years the workshop and home of the craftsman Nishiyama Kogetsu (西山 鴻月), a true master of the art of making hagoita; visitors can see the Nishiyama family collection of various hagoita created from the end of the Edo era and the beginning of the Meiji era until today.

Nishiyama Kogetsu

Nishiyama Kogetsu, started learning the art/craft of the hagoita when he was 15 years old; now he is 90 but he is still active and working in his field. Here’s what he had to say about the charm the hagoita still holds on him: “Although you need a big stage to present the Kabuki or the traditional Japanese dance, the hagoita allows you to catch a glimpse of these worlds. And that is the reason you cannot make a hagoita if you’re not very familiar with these arts. Since I know the whole history of Kabuki, I can imagine a scene from a play exactly as it is and I can recreate it from the beginning till the end with my own two hands”.

The whole “production”, from the design of each hagoita until the painting of the faces and the creation of the clothes is been done by him. And although he does everything by himself and he could easily be considered an artist he remains (contrary to the artistic stereotypes) very well grounded in the real world.

Seeing some of the old hagoita presented in the museum (some of them are more than 150 years old), I was surprised from how vibrant the colors in the actors’ faces still are. When I mentioned that to Mr. Nishiyama, he told me “It has to do with the quality of the colors they used back then. But also, it’s about how the hagoita have been treated by their owners”. This idea, being interested in how the client will handle your product, wanting to please him but on the same time, remaining proud for what you create, is a basic characteristic of these craftsmen, the ones we call in Japanese “shokunin” (職人). Talking with Mr. Nishiyama, one can indeed feel the shokunin spirit.

I spent a whole afternoon in that tiny museum, surrounded by wonderful hagoita and talking to a talented man who has dedicated his whole life in them. And I really feel that the time I spent in there was truly worthwhile.

When I left the place, the clouds had almost covered the Sky Tree. Seeing it, I thought that although there are new things being born every day in Tokyo, there is also always a need for things that were born hundreds of years ago and for the craftsmen who make them; this is what keeps the old arts still living. And for a brief moment, I felt that I understood what was the “iki of Edo”, the characteristic style and the esthetic of another era.   

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