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Focus features two in-depth reviews each month of fine art, architecture and design exhibitions and events at art museums, galleries and alternative spaces around Japan. The contributors are non-Japanese residents of Japan.

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image image Art of the Trowel: Architectural Detail Beautifully Preserved in Tottori
Alice Gordenker
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Detail on a storehouse in the village of Mitsu, in Kotoura, Tottori Prefecture.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the fashion in some of Japan’s smaller towns and villages to embellish the exteriors of homes, shops and storehouses with three-dimensional designs skillfully crafted in plaster. Tucked under eaves or sculpted onto doors, these whimsical reliefs of birds, fish and even vegetables were an extension of the plasterers’ usual work in finishing the outside of buildings. Called kote-e for the trowels (kote) used to form them (followed by a suffix meaning "picture" or "art"), the sculpted designs are often seen in combination with namako-kabe, walls with raised grid patterns that helped repel rainwater. And like the grids, the kote-e had a purpose beyond mere decoration: the designs all incorporated auspicious motifs believed to ensure the safety and prosperity of those who lived and worked within.

Plaster was introduced to Japan from China along with Buddhism and temple architecture, probably in the late 6th century. Initially it was used only as a base for religious paintings but was later adopted as a building material, applied to exterior earthen walls to protect them against the weather. Japanese plaster, called shikkui, is still made with natural materials according to ancient recipes. Although there is some regional variation, adjusting to climate differences and availability of materials, the basic formula combines hydrated lime, a seaweed-based glue, and plant fibers.

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Designs incorporating water, such as this carp climbing a waterfall, were believed to help fireproof a building. (In Mitsu, Tottori Prefecture)

Once it was possible to see cranes, turtles and other lucky designs in plaster throughout Japan. But many examples of such "trowel art" have now been lost, along with the buildings they adorned, to disaster, development, and time. Fortunately there are still surviving clusters as well as communities actively trying to preserve this small piece of architectural history. The best known is probably Matsuzaki on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture, the birthplace of a skilled plasterer named Chohachi Irie (1815-89) who worked both locally and as far away as Edo (now Tokyo). The town maintains a small museum in its famous son's honor, and his work can be seen here and there along the narrow streets. Another notable place for kote-e is Oita Prefecture in Kyushu. The villages of Ajimu, Kitsuki and Hiji, located near each other, all have surviving examples. But to my eye, they are less skilled than what you see in Matsuzaki.

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A home (left) and storehouse in the village of Mitsu.

Equally deserving of recognition -- so far unreceived -- is the town of Kotoura in Tottori Prefecture, which lies in western Japan along the coast of the Japan Sea. The tiny hamlet of Mitsu, incorporated into Kotoura during a wave of municipal mergers a dozen or so years ago, boasts an impressive roster of kote-e. Of the 48 households in the settlement, fully half have one or more plaster-walled buildings decorated with the plaster reliefs. The color scheme is uniform throughout the village, nicely harmonized in white with shades of blue, slate grey and ochre.

The reason for Mitsu's particularly high concentration of kote-e is that a small cadre of plasterers settled there during the Meiji era (1868-1912), relocating from elsewhere in Japan. Shozo Toyoshima (1878-1968) started the work on local buildings, succeeded by his assistant Teiichi Yoshida (1900-85). Yoshida in turn trained his own son and several assistants who continued work on their own and neighbors' homes while practicing their trade from Mitsu.

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A storehouse shutter decorated with an auspicious motif known as uchide-no-kozuchi (lucky mallet). When swung, the mallet will grant its holder’s wishes.

Part of Mitsu's appeal is that it is completely unspoiled by tourism. The local government did build a small parking lot for visitors, where there is a signboard with a map directing you to the kote-e. But there isn't a single café or gift shop, and if you meet anyone at all on the narrow streets, it's likely to be a local resident who will invite you into their yard for a closer look. Don't miss the small building at the end of town that serves as a sort of museum. It's just one room but offers an interesting display of trowels as well as diagrams on paper made by the plasterers when planning their designs.

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A storehouse shutter decorated with a daikon radish. The stepped construction around the edge of the shutter helps prevent fire from entering the window when the shutter is closed. (Photo by Thomas Gittel)

The motifs seen on Mitsu's homes and storehouses are happy and fortuitous ones, familiar from other traditional crafts from around the same time, including porcelain dishes and kimono fabric. Some of these motifs came to Japan from China, where they already held auspicious meanings, such as the turtle and crane as symbols of longevity. Others are uniquely Japanese. An interesting example is the daikon radish, which was considered auspicious because daikon sounds like daikoku, meaning "great riches." Such word play is often at work in traditional Japanese designs.

As the construction of traditional buildings declined before and after World War II, there was a decrease in demand for the services of plasterers. The last plaster craftsman in Mitsu hung up his trowel over a decade ago, and there is no longer anyone in the village or surrounding area with the skills to make or repair kote-e. Fortunately there are a handful of younger craftspeople at work in other parts of Japan trying to keep the tradition alive. One can only hope that someone will step up to help maintain the beautiful examples of kote-e preserved in Mitsu.

A printed guide to the kote-e of Mitsu, presently available only in Japanese, can usually be picked up from a rack at the signboard in the parking lot. It can also be downloaded from the local tourism board's website. While in Kotoura, you can also visit Kanzaki Jinja, a Shinto shrine with intricate wood carvings similar to those at the very famous Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. Also worth a look is the birthplace of photographer Teiko Shiotani, a richly appointed traditional building converted into a museum and gallery, with a wonderfully nostalgic cafe. Both are in the Akasaki section of Kotoura, about four kilometers from Mitsu. There is also a small but excellent museum in nearby Tottori City devoted to the folk crafts of the Mingei movement.

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A storehouse completed in 2006 by Harasadao Noguchi, the last plasterer to work in Mitsu.



Photographs courtesy of the Kotoura City Tourism Association except where otherwise credited.


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Kotoura City Tourism Association
  1031-1 Bessho, Kotoura, Tohaku-gun, Tottori Prefecture
Phone: 0858-55-7811
Access: Mitsu is located on Prefectural Road 30 near the Kotoura-Senjosan interchange of the San'in Expressway in Kotoura City, Tottori Prefecture. There is free designated parking for visitors arriving by private car. The closest railway station, 2 kilometers from Mitsu, is Akasaki on the JR San'in Main Line. There is no bus service or taxi stand but you can cover the distance on foot in 20-25 minutes. The closest airports are Tottori Conan, connected to Tokyo's Haneda Airport with five flights a day in each direction, and Yonago Kitaro, with six flights a day to and from Haneda and service twice a week to and from Hong Kong and Seoul.
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Alice Gordenker
Alice Gordenker is a writer and translator based in Tokyo, where she has lived for more than 19 years. For over a decade, she penned the "So, What the Heck Is That?" column for The Japan Times, providing in-depth reports on everything from industrial safety to traditional talismans. She translates and consults for museums and has a special interest in making Japanese museums more accessible for visitors from other countries.
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