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Discovering the craft of "karakuri" dolls

As an architect practicing in Japan for over 20 years, I have worked with many Japanese carpenters and have always admired their diligence and craftsmanship. That is why I was so excited to travel in Japan and explore the 400 year old tradition of Karakuri mechanical dolls in the NHK World Documentary: A Passion for Mechanical Magic.

By exploring this history, I believe one may have a clearer understanding of not just how the Japanese perceive craft, but how the process of craft may be seen to infuse life into inanimate objects. To understand the roots of the Karakuri doll tradition, one should understand the history of Inuyama. This was a region of flourishing wealth and innovation where rich noblemen were able to sponsor more and more intricate mechanical dolls for entertainment. The images below are of the very popular "Tea Serving Doll." Placing a cup of tea on the the tray starts it moving, and after a set distance it stops for you to take the tea. After enjoying the cup of tea and placing it back on the tray, it spins around and returns to its owner.

I had the distinct honor of meeting Mr. Shobei Tamaya the 9th... he is the only living Karakuri Ningyo Master in Japan from an unbroken lineage. (He certainly smokes a lot though, I am not sure how long he will be with us!)

The archary doll was absolutely amazing, not only in the fact that this wind-up robot can pick up an arrow, place it in a bow, and hit the target, but the subtlety of its design is truly advanced. It is actually programed to his its target only occasionally in order to add to the suspense of the show. The dolls face resembles that of a Noh mask, which has the effect of conveying several different emotions. They say that when the archer hits his target he has an expression of proud happiness, but when he misses the target he seems to be sad.

I also had the distinct pleasure of meeting Takuo Naruse, who is the only person in Japan that is making handmade clocks.

This is a wadokei, or traditional Japanese clock. An interesting aspect of the wadokei is that it has adjustable weights at the top in order to slow and speed up according to the time of year. By doing this the clock was able to correspond with nature, and sunset and sunrise were always the same time. As the clock was being developed in Japan, (before trains and the need for a timetable) at first there was not the same western notion of time that ignored cycles of night and day. According to Naruse-san, the clock was therefore not necessarily a machine to provide a new framework of time, but simply a robotic device to enjoy as it correspondends with the cycles of nature. There were often no sides to the clocks so that the movement of the gears could be viewed and enjoyed.

Kudos to the NHK team that did a fantastic job, especially the director Hosono-san.

No travel show is complete without filming the meal at a local ryokan.

View of Inuyama Castle.

I had a fantastic trip. If you are interested in watching the NHK video, you can download it here.

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