Japan Cultural Days

To celebrate the opening of its new Japan Gallery, the Detroit Institute of Arts recently hosted practitioners of several traditional Japanese art forms. The event gave me the opportunity to observe some of the crafts of an ancient nation, upon whose shores I’m unlikely to tread.

Of the crafts on display in the DIA’s Great Hall, I found that (clockwise from top left) woodcarving, Edo dolls, ceramics and the Karuta card game intrigued me the most. Each practitioner is given the honorific title “Master,” and for good reason!

Like a number of his fellow artists, Master Yokoya sat in the lotus position as, using an array of specialized tools, he carved an intricate design into a large wooden oval suitable for framing a mirror or picture. There was no rushing Master Yokoya: he chose a tool, made the appropriate, subtle cut, then moved on.

A dozen types of dolls and puppets stem from the Edo era (approx. 1603 – 1867). Each one crafted by Master Fujimura is an individual in its own right, with unique facial expressions and dress. Edo doll heads are carved from wood or wood composition. A shining white “skin” lacquer called gofun (a combination of ground oyster shell and glue), gorgeous textiles and decorations adorn these exquisite works of art.

I like pottery, so the rich palette of textures and colors that typify Master Kinoshita’s ceramics caught my attention. The surface of the large bowl in the photo’s foreground reminded me of wet skin coated with coarse beach sand. Another piece I liked was shaped like a beehive! Others resembled origami rendered in clay, instead of paper.

Karuta is a fast-moving card matching game. A traditional Japanese poem (Waka) is written on one set of cards, called the Yomifuda. Only the poem’s last lines are found on another set, the Torifuda. As a card from the latter set is read aloud, players attempt to grab the Torifuda card that matches the Yomifuda, before their opponent. Karuta players exhibit a high degree of attentiveness, darting out their hands to sweep away the appropriate card the instant they recognize a match.

Last but not least, a Bonote martial arts demonstration took place in the Rivera Court (graced by Diego Rivera’s famous murals of Detroit’s industrial history). Bonote, meaning “hand with stick,” is a form of martial art developed some 460 years ago, during Japan’s feudal era. Samurai Lord Nobunaga Oda trained his serfs to wield sticks and spears in battle. When feudal times ended, Bonote evolved into an art form: its stylized movement and utterances were fascinating to watch.

I enjoyed the Japan Cultural Days offerings. The products of the Masters’ skills were available for sale, but at eye-popping prices that showed the considerable value of their training and expertise.

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