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Tohoku calling
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 12 - 2017

“Beautiful Handicrafts of Tohoku-Japan” is a collection of 70 pieces including ceramics, pottery, lacquer, textiles, metalwork, wood and bamboo from Japan. Having taken the Gezira Arts Centre by storm, the exhibition is now being held at the Creativity Centre at Minya University's Faculty of Fine Arts. Opened by the Japanese Ambassador to Egypt Takehiro Kagawa, this is the work of the Japan Foundation's Cairo Office.
According to Office Director Yoo Fukazawa, “Tohoku region is known as the place where there are beautiful mountains and deep forests and it is also rich in culture and history. It is a mountainous region so the land that can be cultivated is quite limited. Also it is very cold in winter. Life is hard, and people from Tohoku are known to have a tenacious disposition. They created those beautiful handicrafts, not giving in to their lives' difficulties. But this part of Japan is not known outside the country. So, first, we wanted the rest of the world to know about the beautiful culture of Tohoku. Secondly, it is this region that was hit by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Around 18,500 people were dead or missing. We wanted to pay tribute to those who lost their lives and their bereaved families. It is also a good opportunity to express our heart-felt gratitude for the Egyptian people, who sent us warm messages of support.
“And, whenever we plan a cultural event in Egypt, we always try to do it not only in Cairo but also in another city. We have often brought events to Alexandria, but this time we wanted to take it somewhere in the south. We are lucky Minya University was interested in holding the exhibition on their campus. They are very supportive. The Japan Foundation has never had an event in Minya in the past. We think we are obliged to go upstream along the Nile because Egypt is the gift of the Nile. Before coming to Egypt, the exhibition travelled to Bulgaria and Armenia. After leaving Egypt it will go to Uzbekistan. This exhibition has been travelling to the cities of many countries and will continue to travel, visiting almost all the major cities around the world: Africa, Europe, Asia and America.”
Tohoku's beautifully woven baskets
According to the exhibition curator Ryuichi Matsubara, who worked with the staff of the Japan Foundation in Tokyo to put together the exhibition, “The works included present an opportunity to discover a new, high level of traditional craft techniques nurtured in the Tohoku region and the functional beauty of daily implements used since ancient times in Japan. They help the audience to appreciate the folk wisdom derived from lives lived close to nature and the manual dexterity cultivated out of that wisdom. Although it focuses on Tohoku, this work is representative of other regions as well. By introducing such traditions overseas, I hope we can transmit an appreciation of Japan's aesthetic sensitivity and masterly craftsmanship.”
Highly functional yet beautiful objects include bamboo, grapevine and akebi quinata baskets and boxes, beautifully straight-grained aromatic Akita cedar woodwork, and Joboji utensils made using the urushi-kaki lacquer sap collection method. The latter show subtle differences that originate in the characteristics of the lacquer in different parts of Tohoku, where the ancient Asian tradition of lacquer crafts finds continued and unique expression. The pottery on display testifies to three distinct traditions: Aizu-Hongo-ware (from Aizu Hongo-cho, Onuma-gun, Fukushima), Naraoka-ware (from Nangai-mura, Senboku-gun, Akita) and Tsutsumi-ware (from Sendai city, Miyagi). It ranges from objects made in kilns built during the Edo period (1603-1868) to objects reflecting contemporary individual visions. Objects display a stunning degree of functionality especially in relation to the region's long and hard winters. There is also Akita Hachijo (natural dye silk) fabric as well as textiles hand-dyed in the tsutsu-gaki tradition, kokeshi ceremonial dolls and kites and e-rosoku decorated candles, with many objects showing Kisshoten, the goddess of beauty.
Japanese kite
According to painting and traditional printing professor Ashraf Zaki, who is a specialist on the subject, “The first kites were brought to Japan by the Buddhist clergy, to be used for religious purposes. But Japanese kites became popular as a form of entertainment, often given to Japanese children as a New Year's gift. Japanese kites are sold as souvenirs or painted with pictures representing Kabuki theatre actors, legendary heroes or religious motifs. Rembrandt used traditional Japanese paper, washi, in woodblock printing around 1650. Picasso and Chagall too were impressed with Japanese paper, which was also instrumental to the restoration of the Vatican's frescos. Elegant and soft, washi is also durable and absorbs moisture. It is therefore used not only in writing and painting but also in the manufacture of furniture and interior decorations such as Shoji curtains and paper lanterns. In the Edo period, Okyyo-e paintings and prints were the result of the proliferation of washi, which is also popular with contemporary fashion designer Eshe Miyake.”
According to Fukazawa, Wadaiko drum concerts are to take place on 9 and 11 February in Cairo and Alexandria.


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