Mingei, Japanese Folk Art

Japanese Lacquer Sake Barrel, Iwaidaru for Wedding

Japanese Lacquer Sake Barrel, Iwaidaru for Wedding

We at Jcollector have currently been enjoying a variety of summer fairs and festivals throughout California and around the country. Summer is a fantastic time for celebrating traditions and culture. Japanese festivals and community events abound, and allow us to share in and enjoy Japan’s rich heritage. They are also a great way to learn about Japan’s varied arts movements and the objects which illustrate them.

For example, we thought this week’s blog should be about Mingei, or Japanese folk art. Mingei literally means “art of the common folk.” The word was invented in 1925, by Yanagi Soetsu, a philosopher and art critic, who established the folk art movement in Japan with two of his ceramicist friends, Hamada Shoji and Kawai Kanjiro.

Japanese Lacquer and Wood Rice Barrel

Japanese Lacquer and Wood Rice Barrel

The main distinction between Mingei and fine art is that the term “fine art” usually refers to objects with decorative or aesthetic value. Fine art objects are primarily pieces with little to no functional use. Mingei pieces are almost always functional and have purpose beyond their decorative appeal.  An example might be the Japanese lacquer barrels and flasks that were used to hold food and drink, such as rice and sake.

Much as in the U.S., late 19th-century Japan’s regional craft work diminished as mass production and standardization of economical goods increased. At this time, the Japanese government encouraged creation of easily produced, less expensive items and, consequently, handmade pieces became harder and harder to come by. Soetsu was deeply concerned with the negative consequences of industrialization, and he championed a return to and appreciation of traditional Japanese craftwork.

Japanese Tamba Ceramic Tokkuri Sake Bottle

Japanese Tamba Ceramic Tokkuri Sake Bottle

Soetsu passionately encouraged the Japanese to respect and enjoy high-quality, traditional handmade crafts.  He is almost solely responsible for keeping regional craft work in high demand and continual production.  Additionally, through his famous book, The Unknown Craftsman, he introduced Japan’s rich heritage of folk and craft art to the West. Soetsu, Shoji and Kanjiro also founded Nihon Mingei Kyokai, the Japan Folk Art Association, and have published a journal, Mingei, since 1931, which is still in circulation today. Their famous collection of Mingei objects can currently be seen in their museum, the Nihon Mingeikan, in Komaba, Tokyo.

Japanese School House Soroban Abacus, Meiji

Japanese School House Soroban Abacus, Meiji

Other examples of Mingei that can be found on Jcollector are this old schoolhouse abacus or soroban and the exquisite Japanese woven copper basket below, which was used to securely transport keepsakes and valuables. These pieces are particularly special because they were used frequently and often had various owners. They are valuable collector’s items because they have been so well cared for throughout the years and now serve as unique symbols of the Japanese Folk Art Movement.

Japanese Woven Copper Basket with Lid

Japanese Woven Copper Basket with Lid

Can’t make it to Japan?  Try the Mingei International Museum located in San Diego, California, to see all manner of Mingei, Japanese folk art.

The Japanese Garden

Japanese GardenSummer is finally upon us! Flowers are blooming, plants are flourishing, and many of us are spending more and more time outdoors and in our yards. We at Jcollector feel there’s no better time for a blog addressing the fascinating history and essential elements of the Japanese garden.

Traditional Japanese gardens include a variety of features with particular forms and functions. They typically surround a home, shrine or central structure and often feature elements such as water, real or symbolic, rock or stone arrangements, and stone or metal lanterns like the one shown to the right.

Japanese Stone Lantern, Antique Garden Ishidoro

Often, Japanese gardens showcase teahouses or pavilions, and perimeters such as hedges or fences. They frequently include bridges to islands or ornamental mounds and stepping stones for viewing the surroundings from various vantage points.

Three of the most established styles of Japanese gardens are Karesansui, Tsukiyama and Chaniwa gardens. The Karesansui or “dry landscape” garden was primarily influenced by Zen Buddhism and can be found at most Zen temples throughout Japan. Unlike other traditional gardens, in Karesansui gardens no water is present. However, raked gravel or sand evokes the feeling of water. The stones and gravel are chosen for their shape, and mosses, small shrubs and other plants are utilized for further embellishment. Great attention is given to the placement of these objects as they represent ponds, islands, boats, seas, rivers, and mountains.

Zen GardenTsukiyama Gardens imitate famous landscapes. They are often used strategically to make smaller gardens appear larger. Shrubs deliberately block views of surrounding buildings, and the garden’s layout customarily draws the viewer’s focus to distant mountains or vistas. Ponds, streams, hills, stones, trees, flowers, bridges, and paths occupy this style of garden.

Japanese Stone Tsukubai, Antique Garden Basin

Japanese Stone Tsukubai, Antique Garden Basin

Chaniwa Gardens are designed for the Japanese Tea Ceremony. These feature tea houses, stepping stones, stone lanterns and basins (tsukubai), like this one offered at Jcollector.  These are normally situated at the structure’s entrance so that visitors may purify themselves in the traditional manner before the ceremony.

Gardens designed in Japanese style were first documented in the Asuka period (538-710). The Japanese would utilize their gardens to express reflections on Buddhism and Taoism, often stylistically replicating mountainous regions in China. Today, these gardens, though in ruins, can still be visited in Japan’s castle towns, Fujiwara and Heijyo.

During the Heian period (794-1185), Japanese gardens became increasing popular as places of ceremony and contemplation. Those who could afford to build gardens showed a renewed interest in traditional Japanese style and culture that resulted in an elegant synthesis of Chinese custom and Japanese style. This combination was known as Shinden. Their gardens reflected elements of myth and legend. For example, streams always ran from east to west because in ancient Chinese lore, the East was the source of purity and the West the outlet of impurities.

During the Kamakura era (1185-1392), gardens burgeoned due to improved garden techniques. Zen beliefs were also flourishing at the time and greatly influenced garden theory, practice and purpose. Zen Buddhist priests began creating gardens for meditation instead of entertainment. Meditative qualities were valued over decorativeness. Gardens in this age tended to include stones, water and evergreens, remaining constant throughout the year.

Hira-niwa garden

Hira-niwa Garden

In the Muromachi (1392-1573) and Higashiyama (1392-1573) periods, minimalism intensified and many gardens contained only stones. Created in the style of the monochrome landscape paintings popular during the time, these gardens used specially selected stones as symbols. The flat garden, or Hira-niwa, also became fashionable.

Gardens constructed in the Edo period (1603-1868) reflected the tastes and style of individual shogun rulers who were the military dictators governing at various times throughout Japan’s history. Their gardens, instead of functioning as religious symbols, highlighted prestige and power. Considered royal gardens, they were vibrant and lush, full of hills, waterfalls, and a vast variety of plants. Also, walking gardens were conceived, constructed and designed to be aesthetically pleasing from any angle. Paths were woven into garden layouts.

Japanese Blue-and-White Porcelain Hibachi or Jardiniere

Japanese Blue-and-White Porcelain Hibachi or Jardiniere

JCollector offers a wide variety of Japanese garden elements. During this time of backyard barbeques and outdoor activity, these serve both as aesthetic enhancements and evocations of Japanese culture in any garden. Japanese hibachi make excellent jardinière for the patio or deck.

 Japanese Stone Garden Jizo

Japanese Stone Garden Jizo

Garden Jizo or guardian spirits  stand vigil over garden parties or quiet contemplation. Japanese rain chains  not only catch the eye, but are music to the ear as water courses through them during rain storms. We at Jcollector are pleased to be able to carry on the tradition of the Japanese garden by making a great selection of its charming essentials available for yours!

Japanese Copper Rain Chain, Blossoms

Japanese Copper Rain Chain, Blossoms

Japanese Iron Lantern, Tea Garden Andon Lamp

Japanese Iron Lantern, Tea Garden Andon Lamp

ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST Features Jcollector’s Hagoita

Japanese Hagoita New Years Paddle

Thank you Architectural Digest for featuring one of Jcollector’s fabulous antique hagoita New Year’s paddles in your August, 2009, issue! Readers, you can view it on page 64 in the “Discoveries by Designers” section. As a result of AD’s interest, we have had a run on these wonderful items and are actively searching for others to replenish our inventory.

Traditional Japanese hagoita are wooden paddles used for a game called hanetsuki, which is similar to badminton. Each December, hagoita markets open in Japan selling these charming New Year’s gifts for girls. A market near Toyko’s Senso-ji temple in Asakusa is perhaps Japan’s oldest (founded 350 years ago during the Edo period) and most famous. It is typically held annually from December 17-19.

Japanese Hagoita New Year’s Paddle, Wisteria Maiden

Antique hagoita come in all sizes and are crafted with one side of handpainted wood (used to hit the shuttlecock) and another, even more decorative side, of finely rendered silk and other fabrics skillfully fashioned in high relief to represent well-known Kabuki theater figures. The older ones are highly valued and in great demand as wall hangings or dramatic decorative elements in any environment.

Check back often at Jcollector, as we are regularly updating our selection of antique hagoita!


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It’s Lightweight! (an essential, though frequently overlooked, quality in antique Japanese tansu)

This weekend Ruben and I were helping some friends move furniture. It seemed like such a simple task – moving a bedroom set from one room to the next. We move Japanese furniture all the time, so we volunteered happily, thinking the job would be quick and effortless. After all, the two of us often lift and carry large kitchen, clothing or merchant tansu from room to room in our warehouse and assist in the offloading of our containers when they arrive from Japan, loaded with beauties for our customers. How bad could it be?

Mizuya Kitchen Tansu

Well, it turns out, VERY bad. Western furniture is HEAVY! Among the four of us, the result was a total of one strained shoulder, a twisted knee, a woeful depletion of energy and sore backs overall. Two hours later, still in a sweat while sipping iced tea, I told our friends, “You must get some antique Japanese furniture!”

Besides its obvious beauty, there is nothing like a Japanese tansu for mobility and ease of use. First, all large antique tansu, including kaidan-dansu or step tansu, are modular. They come in separate pieces, two, three, sometimes even four easily manageable sections. This was originally established in case of fire. Early Japanese homes were often fire-prone, so the owners needed to be able get their belongings out quickly and easily. Second, antique Japanese tansu almost always have a percentage of paulownia (aka, kiri), a finely grained, warp-resistant and lightweight wood. Some chests are even 100% kiri. Others might have cedar, cypress, persimmon or keyaki (aka, zelcova) accents. All, are relatively light in comparison to most other furniture, another reason there is nothing quite so wonderful as antique Japanese tansu in the modern home!


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The Japanese Kitchen

A kamado in a traditional Japanese kitchen

Jcollector offers a variety of antique and traditional Japanese kitchen furnishings, fixtures and décor.  These range from handsome kitchen chest tansu to low dining tables of simple wood or fine lacquer, hibachi, furogama, kotatsu and all manner of utilitarian as well as decorative items.

The Imperial Palace during the Heian Age (794-1185) used four rooms for accomplishing kitchen-related tasks. These were the oni no ma (the tasting and checking for poison room), daibandokoro (for placing prepared food on a diner’s serving tray/table), asagarei no ma (breakfast room) and oidono (the actual cooking room).  Sometimes, all four rooms were joined together as one building, and usually separated from the Imperial Palace as a safeguard against fire and unpleasant odors affecting the Imperial family.

Later, during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the four rooms of the kitchen were united inside the main building and under one roof.  This architectural composition is called “Shoinzukuri.”  In early designs, the kitchen was connected to the other rooms via a corridor to the main building. Later, it combined fire and water (the stove or kamado and irori, a well and a drain) into the kitchen space in the main building (omoya).

Kitchen Tansu - Mizuya Dansu

Until the Edo period, the term daidokoro referred to the pantry and servant dining area.  It began to be used to describe the entire kitchen area during this period.  The kitchen became an important room, especially because it was the one place in the house with running water.  Also, more burners were added to the stove/kamado, and it was raised to eliminate the need to squat while cooking.

A well-to-do kitchen would feature the kitchen tansu, a dramatic and practical chest offering a variety of compartments and drawers for storage.  Its entrance would be draped by a colorful noren, a Japanese fabric divider traditionally hung between rooms, on walls, in doorways or windows.  Serving as a heater was the kotatsu, a low, wooden table frame, covered by a futon or heavy blanket to catch the warmth of the coals beneath, and upon which sat a table top.

The hibachi or fire bowl, was also introduced at this time.   Besides the larger, wood-framed Kyoto and Toyko styles, many smaller hibachi are available on Jcollector.  These were traditionally used as personal handwarmers for residents and guests, but today make dramatic jardinières and display items in the Western home.

Japanese Hibachi

You can find many examples of kitchen furnishings and wares available at both Jcollector and Jtansu.  All have stood the test of time and today add a charming sense of Japanese style, combining beauty and utility, to environments of every kind worldwide.


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What’s a Ranma?

Japanese Ranma with Falcon Motif

One of Jcollector’s most popular items is the Japanese ranma. In the West, designers and homeowners have found striking ways in which to display these architectural wonders. Above or alongside doors or windows, inset to customize coffee tables or consoles, installed as dramatic structural elements, their uses are endless.

Japanese Ranma from Buddhist Temple

For over a thousand years, ranma or transom panels were used in Japan to fill the space between the top of sliding doors or partition screens and the ceiling. Introduced during the Heian Period (9th to the 12th centuries), ranma allowed light and air to pass between interior rooms when the sliding doors (shoji) or fusuma doors were closed. Ranma were used in all types of Japanese buildings.

Japanese Ranma Detail

Today, ranma not only serve the practical purpose of allowing ventilation and light into the interior of a house or temple, but are exceptional works of art. Their crafting ranges from carved three-dimensional pictorial scenes and geometric slatted designs to sublime, natural wood slices of trees. Generally, the more intricately carved and three-dimensional, the older the ranma. Ranma may have black lacquered wood frames or be bordered in a natural finish.

Japanese Ranma Detail

There are many types of transom. Bold carving helps bring out the best qualities in the wood grain of one . A wonderful balanced open-work design is achieved in another. Some feature precise bars or repeating elements, others include decorative cartouches. Many are little more than a frame, employing negative space for impact, but all represent the Japanese ideal of beauty combined with function. Besides wood, bamboo is often employed in ranma as both the material and motif.

Ranma represent wooden sculpture at it best, featuring breathtaking imagery from nature, including pine, maple, bamboo, cherry and plum trees and blossoms, as well as sea and mountain landscapes. They make a unique and eye-catching addition to any interior!

Japanese Ranma - Geometrical Motif with Cartouches

Japanese Ranma for Tearoom


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