Thursday, January 22, 2009

Jōmon Style for the 21st Century

The Jōmon (縄文) people of ancient Japan may have hit their aesthetic heights at about 2,500-1,500 BCE. Jōmon means "twisted cord" and refers to the distinctive decorative style that marked their ceramics. As any dynamic art, their ceramics developed from the small lightly decorated rough pottery of their early period (roughly 10500-1,200 BCE) to massive and ornate storage and cooking pottery marked by intricate patterns and fancifully fluted lips and brims. These "prehistoric" folk certainly left a historic legacy throughout Japan with bits and shards of their distinctive pottery - which are generally accepted to be the oldest known functional ceramic ware in the world - for future archeologists to speculate upon.

The Ajimi team was out strolling a bit ago in Takaido-Higashi through a little park off the mighty Kanda when we came to a little plaza strewn with some classic/contemporary examples of Jōmon clay work. 

Individual stools, with faux reconstructed body sherds, shaped in classic inverted cone of Jōmon ware were planted solidly into the paving stones along the edges of a small plaza.  The collars were etched in a simple pattern referring to early period Jomon style. Two opposing curls of clay referred to primitive handles, binding the seat tops into a graceful whole. The seat tops were glazed to protect the fired clay from the elements. Glazing was unknown to the Jōmon people.

Next to stools was the Jōmon ashtray. Again in the distinctive inverted cone coil construction of much of Jōmon ware. This oversized object highlighted simple yet pleasing castellations on the edges of the collar. Spare and tasteful decorations made by pressing a twisted cord or piece of rope graced the body of the free standing ashtray.

Perhaps the highlight of the ceramic pieces was the drinking fountain. Again in the classic conoidal style of middle period Jōmon ware, the surface was beautifully decorated, the collar simple and functional - as befits a contemporary simulacra of a spring for potable water.

And last, but not least, the garbage can. A bit more Baroque in decoration, referring to late middle style, the shape was more of an inverted bell. The modern and Duchampian touch of a bicycle rim was not only fanciful and art historically resonant, but functional - a great way to keep crows from making a mess of refuse.

Some smart ideas for the 21st Century.  These pieces of public furniture were part of a permanent display that also included a reconstruction of a Jomon hut (Tokyo residential designers take note - these ancient people certainly had better ideas than most of what passes for housing design in contemporary Tokyo apartments) and an information center/museum where the Ajimi team could marvel at genuine pottery on display.


Friday, January 16, 2009


Shortly after the New Year, the Ajimi team took a trip to Enoshima (江ノ島), a little island just south of Kamakura, accessible by a short walk across a long bridge from the mainland. Sometimes referred to as the Mont-Saint-Michel of Japan, it, like the noted French Island, is overrun with tourists, yet still holds a certain enchantment behind the clutter of souvenir shops and tourist cafes and the special way certain shrines maximize profit where there are guaranteed to be a lot of visitors.

Benzaiten (弁才天), one of the seven lucky gods, is the mistress of the island. She's the one in charge of everything that flows - water, words, music, money and sometimes, love. Jostling with the streaming crowd up the bustling shopping street (where curiously many shops sell padlocks amongst the tchotchkes, dried fish products and senbei) one reaches the vermillion torii demarcating the entrance to Enoshima jinja (江島神社), a shinto shrine promoting Benzaiten, a Buddhist goddess.  There's a place to wash one's money under her watchful eyes and for 200 yen one can enter a pavilion where you can see her naked - a lovely and rare sculpture of the goddess unclothed.

Perhaps this bit of titillation is to get one into the mood for love. We humped our way up the hill beyond the jinja past hucksters, through crowds to Okutsunomiya (奥津宮) shrine, where one can see an image the all-seeing turtle seeing all.

Just a bit down the path and to the left a solitary souvenir shop stands, doing brisk business selling padlocks. It's here where couples make their purchase and walk arm in arm up a path to a bluff overlooking the Pacific. A small pavilion on a cement platform houses a bell. Festooning the low cyclone fence on one edge of the platform are locks. All kinds, from simple padlocks to bicycle locks, each sharpie-inscribed with  statements of enduring love, from the simple x loves y to perfect haikus and longer tomes. And it is here where they attach their own.

This is Lover's Hill (恋人の丘), a relatively recent - sometime in the 1960s it seems to have started - promotion that's now become tradition. As the story goes there was this dragon god, Ryujin, who was seriously bugging the mortal folk living on Enoshima. Benzaiten stepped in and vowed to marry Ryujin-san, but only if he left the island and people of Enoshima alone. She may have had other motives - judging from the dragon that guards a cave/shrine near Okutsunomiya. Whatever, the story's a good one and now a few generations of young and old lovers have made the pilgrimage to Enoshima to hang their locks of love, ring the bell, and slyly pocket the key, just in case. As the fences get filled to capacity, they're taken from the posts and laid on a nearby path, creating a lovely found sculpture to modern love. The bodies and shackles of layers and layers of locks, rusting and slowly returning to the earth.