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Apr. 7, Tue, 2015.Kumamoto: Children, Dolls and Celebrating Spring
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Spring arrives early in Kumamoto, in southwestern Japan. In this region, people like to celebrate the annual Hina Dolls Festival. Arrays of dolls are displayed, to pray for the healthy growth of young girls in each family. On the islands of Amakusa in the west of Kumamoto, people have long practiced Christianity. They kept their faith, even during the centuries when it was banned and they faced persecution. During that time, they made dolls which they used as part of their worship. And in Kumamoto City, children make their dolls in preparation for spring.
On this edition of Journeys in Japan, American photographer Kit Pancoast Nagamura discovers the rich culture and history of Kumamoto, where spring is celebrated and children have been cherished since ancient times.
Tateyama Tea Store
Tateyama Tea Store
This traditional tea store, established over 130 years ago, sells the finest local green tea. Every spring, it displays an impressive collection of the family's Hina dolls.
Address: 43 Kajiya-machi, Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto Pref.
Open: 8:30 am - 5:00 pm
Tel: +81-966-22-2566
Amakusa Municipal Rosary Museum (Rosario Kan)
Amakusa Municipal Rosary Museum (Rosario Kan)
This unusual historical pieces in this collections shed light on the way the “hidden Christians" in Amakusa continued to practice their faith during long years of religious persecution.
Address: 1749 Oe, Amakusa-machi, Amakusa City, Kumamoto Pref.
Open: 8:30 am - 5:00 pm (closed Wednesday)
Tel: +81-969-42-5259
Gunpokaku Gracia Inn
Gunpokaku Gracia Inn
The interior of this inn is designed to evoke the culture of “hidden Christians" of times past. Dinner includes high quality local seafood.
Address: 1296 Amakusacho Shimodakita, Amakusa City, Kumamoto Pref.
Kumamoto Castle
Kumamoto Castle
Explore the historic castle, with its beautiful ume orchard.
Open: 8:30 am - 6:00pm (Mar-Nov.)
8:30 am - 5:00 pm (Dec.-Feb.)
Poincare Bookstore
Poincare Bookstore
This unusual store sells interesting old books and cute handmade accessaries.
Address: 5-18 Jotocho, Chuoku, Kumamoto City, Kumamoto Pref.
Open: 2:00 pm - 7:00 pm (Sunday and holidays)
Sumioka Kijiuma Workshop
Traditional toys known as kijiuma are made here by a wonderful 80-year-old craftsman.
Address: 104-1 Nishiki-machi, Kuma-gun, Kumamoto Pref.
This unique store, located in the old fabric wholesaler district, offers antique Japanese toys from the 1960s and 70s. Here you can discover your inner child!
Address: 2 Kawaramachi, Chuoku, Kumamoto City, Kumamoto Pref.
Open: Mon-Sat (closed Sun. and holidays)
Tel: +81-96-221-4188
From Tokyo, flights to Kumamoto City take about 2 hours. From there to Hitoyoshi, it's another hour and a half by train. And to reach Amakusa, it takes an hour and half by bus and ferry.
Travel Log

Traveler: Kit Pancoast Nagamura > More Info


Occupation:Poet, photographer, editor, and long-term columnist for The Japan Times

Length of residence in Japan:Over 20 years

Reason of coming to Japan:I'm the fifth generation of my family to adore Japan. When I won a year-long fellowship from Brown University to interview artists here, I fell in love with the food, the profound culture, and the people.

Traveler's Archives:

> Tohoku haiku journey -following Basho's footsteps-

> The Miniature World of Bonsai - Omiya -

> Wajima Lacquerware, Layers of Perfection

> Appreciating Abundance - Kumamoto Pref. -

> Winter Wonderland - Hakodate

I flew to Kumamoto in search of harbingers of spring: ume blossoms; and hina-ningyo, the traditional dolls that are displayed each year for Girl's Day, on March 3rd.

My journey started in Hitoyoshi, a castle town ruled by the Sagara clan for 30 generations. Exploring the original massive walls of the castle ruins, I found two recently rebuilt turrets that help to conjure its former glory. Next, wandering the traditional blacksmith's neighborhood, which once served the castle, I located the last extant smithy. The master, Masatsugu Minoda, simultaneously shy and proud, stoked swarms of sparks at his forge as he demonstrated the age-old Japanese finesse at hammering out sharp knives.

In local shop windows, I spied whimsical Hina dolls handmade by local school children. At the Tateyama Shoten tea store, I perused the family's collection of antique dolls spanning the Edo, Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods. I learned from 90-year-old Yasuko Tateyama and her daughter-in-law that Hina dolls were once believed to absorb evil spirits, thereby protecting their human counterparts. I also saw tsuchibina, dolls of glazed clay fashioned for people who could not afford expensive dolls. Picking up one of them, I marveled at the thoughtfulness behind its creation.

Next I moved to Sakitsu, on the island of Amakusa, off Kumamoto's west coast. There, sea hawks and herons swooped over boats bobbing on turquoise waters. The sleepy village seemed lost in time, inhabited by elders and sunbathing cats. The focal point of Amakusa is the spire of Sakitsu Catholic Church. It is also famous for a statue of the Virgin Mary on a nearby promontory, bidding fishermen safe voyages and swift returns.

In this part of Japan, dolls once took on heavy significance. Christianity was banned in Japan for some 240 years, from the early 17th century. Christians in Amakusa kept their faith in secret. Fearing persecution, they created clay dolls disguised to look like Japanese traditional figures, which they worshiped as icons of their religion. Viewing a famous example from the Edo period exhibited at Rosario Kan, a hall dedicated to the “hidden Christians", I noted that in certain lights, the doll looked remarkably like a Renaissance depiction of Madonna and Child.

After a fabulous seafood dinner and a dip in the spa at Gunpokaku Gracia Inn, I stopped to meet two men who are actively preserving the tradition of creating these clay dolls.

I then headed back to Kumamoto City. There, I visited a community library/ art center involved with making and selling dolls. I began to sense how toys often play a crucial role in connecting generations with tradition, craftsmanship and social awareness. I toyed with that notion as I toured the magnificent Kumamoto Castle, awash in ume blossoms and the promise of spring.

Inside Story

Mayu Nakamura

Kumamoto is a lovely place where people are kind and gentle.
You can also find wonderful sake and food!

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