Into the New Year

Kadomatsu in place at Shioyasu, the sales outlet of the Shioyasu Lacquer Workshop in Wajima
Well, it’s nearly 2015.  It’s a time to reflect on the year we are leaving and an opportunity to consider the year to come.  It’s a special time in Japan.  There are festive foods, all kinds of decorations and the nation comes together to follow time honoured customs, all of which make the three days of the New Year holidays special and immensely meaningful.

Sadly the New Year in the UK seems to have become more of an excuse to drink too much and to “have fun”, often resulting in a visit to the Accident and Emergency department of a local hospital.

The tradition in Scotland is much stronger.  It involves “first-footing” or the welcoming of a person to bring good fortune on New Year’s Day.  Gifts  such as a piece of coal to warm the home, a silver coin to bring good luck and, inevitably, some whisky to help make the day go well.  But these traditions too have weakened.

In Japan, however, the coming of the New Year is still very much a collective experience as much as a family one.  And it is definitely a time to say goodbye to all that was unpleasant or regrettable and to welcome in a spirt of hope and anticipation the new year ahead.

In the past, people began there celebrations with the coming of darkness on New Year’s Eve but nowadays, just as in most other parts of the world, midnight is a marker and fireworks are a modern addition to so many traditions of this nationwide celebration.

Kadomatsu—Nara style arrangement

Preparations, however, begin much sooner.  One of the first signs of the approaching festivities is the appearance of kadomatsu—often an assemblage of bamboo, pine and perhaps a floral accent placed either side of a the entrance to a house or even company to welcome the kami or deities, which are said to make an auspicious visit at the New Year.

These and other decorations to mark the coming of the New Year are seldom tacky, although even such cheap products have a charm of their own.  They are, however, much more likely to be works of sheer artistry, pregnant with symbolic meaning.

The pine in the kadomatsu is expressive of hardiness and therefore long life.  The clean sharp lines of the interior of the bamboo most poignantly represent purity and virtue, and consistency is identified in the regularity of the nodes along the culm.  In other decorations there are pieces of fern, its multiplicity in form alluding to ever increasing good fortune.  A type of bitter orange called a daidai has a name with the same meaning as “from generation to generation” in Japanese.  Then there is a small lobster bent in a characteristic position similar to how the elderly become bent with increasing years.  To be blessed with long life is the suggestion.  And so it goes on—the hopes of mere mortals symbolised and artfully combined to welcome in the New Year.  This is as true in Noto as it is throughout Japan.  What comes next?  Wait and see.

Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.  Thank you.



You know where Japan is, right?  But what about Noto?  Few people will have heard of it and even fewer people will have been there.  Where is it?  Well, take a look at a map and it’s the peninsula which juts out into the Japan Sea.  Its fairly rugged coastline gives way to arboreous mountains, cultivated fields and lands which are sparsely populated.  So, on the surface perhaps not too engaging.  Look more closely, however, and you will find an interesting history, culture, climate and landscape as well as a number of individuals and their work all worthy of more attention.

One of the main aims of this blog, therefore, is to try and bring some of the virtually unsung and yet truly absorbing aspects of Noto to a much wider audience.

Simply speaking while this is our main aim, we are hoping, too, to be able to show how the peculiarities of the climate, history and the environment of Noto as a whole are reflected by its culture.  By doing so we will also hope to relate something of its appeal.

Designer:  Takashi Wakamiya
A major component of the culture of Noto is Wajima lacquerware.  Although its history probably dates back to sometime during the 12th century, it has been well-known outside Japan, principally in Europe, since the eighteenth century.  More than anything else it was the fine delicately rendered designs in makie work that caught people’s attention and continue to hold a dedicated customer base abroad as well as in Japan.  We will therefore hope to focus on this craft as it is such and integral element in the culture of the area and equally special among all of the acclaimed crafts, which have existed for so long in Japan.

Thirdly, we will inevitably need to focus on some of the major players, or should I say artisans and others, who are at work in Noto.

Lending their support to this blog, there is in fact a group of individuals that have come together as the Wajima Lacquer Study Group.  Don’t be put off by the seemingly academic tone of the name of this group.  While many of them are skilled craftspeople dedicated to the making of fine pieces of lacquerware, there is also a sprit of discovery and an urge to move forward into new areas and uses for the craft.

One of Wajima's main streets on an autumn morning.
The connection with lacquerware and the food on which it is served is another topic we will seek to introduce.  Both are a testament to the skills of the artisan and chef, and in turn expressive of the environment that is Noto.

We hope, therefore, to be able to introduce in English a variety of subjects gleaned directly from those who are not only representative of what is going on in Noto right now but also reflect in a multitude of ways the peculiarities of this peninsula.

A seafood breakfact after a visit to the street market.
So who is behind this endeavor beside the Wajima Lacquer Study Group?  The producer of this blog is Yuko Yokoyama, a long suffering and very knowledgeable champion of traditional crafts in Japan.  She has dedicated herself to fostering crafts, which have an unassailable quality, are skill-based and have an untapped potential that the makers more often than not find difficult to exploit themselves.  Yuko is, therefore, their flag bearer.  It was Yuko, too, who was instrumental in the production of the Japan Crafts Sourcebook, the first book of its kind at the time and still available on the Net.

Customers at the Wajima Morning Market
arrange for fresh squid to be couriered back home.
And then there is me, Bill Tingey.  Yuko and I have worked together on a number of projects related to traditional crafts since 1985, some focusing on design and promotion, while others have been workshops.  Still others have been the translation of material into English, always with a view to widening the audience for traditional Japanese crafts.

I lived in Japan for 24 years and while I worked with Yuko on a number of occasions, I was also engaged on a large number of my own design and photographic projects as well as writing or translating material on traditional crafts, architecture and design.

We will be glad of comments and questions and we will do our best to reply to queries when we can.  Join us on a journey into the history, culture, climate and landscape of the Noto peninsula as well as the working lives of the individuals who are true Noto-arians.

Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.  Thank you.

Photo Copy Right © Bill Tingey