Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Towering Matsuri of Inuyama & Ichinomiya

On April 1st, Inuyama Matsuri marks the start of Japan's spring festival season. Over the course of a few months, hundreds of floats will emerge from their winter hibernation and travel across the small towns of Aichi Prefecture bringing music, excitement, and puppet shows.

Often known as Aichi's "Little Kyoto,” Inuyama is lined with preserved Edo era homes, traditional Japanese inns, tea houses, and museums. The small but popular destination welcomes visitors with Japan's oldest castle, which towers over Haritsuna Shrine, home base for Inuyama's spring festival. With its enormous parade of thirteen ornamental dashi, large crowds of excited visitors, and neighborhoods brimming with culture, Inuyama is the perfect place to fall back into Japan's festival season.

On the first day of the celebration, Inuyama's dashi, or yama, gather in front of Haritsuna Shrine. The thirteen floats, each adorned with karakuri ningyo, tower above thousands of eager spectators. These are some of the tallest dashi in the Japan, measuring about 7 meters high. However, they are more slender than their cousins, and, despite their height, weigh about the same. Instead of ornate wooden carvings, the dashi are constructed from narrow beams and adorned in local textiles. Also, To help manage the float's weight, the karakuri ningyo puppets are a bit smaller.


Inuyama Matsuri is home to one of Aichi's most unique floats, a stunning 6 meter boat that travels through the narrow streets performing the story of Urashima, an old man who spends four hundred years underneath the Pacific. Typically a dashi's decorations, carvings, and embroidery won't offer too many clues into the karakuri ningyo they shelter. However, this stunning gold-trimmed vessel creates a unified vision of Urashima's famous nautical tale.


Urashima is not the only celebrated personality at Inuyama Matsuri. While children always play an important role in Japanese festivals, from pulling floats to playing music, the kids in Inuyama are adorned like living idols. The leader of the annual festival, or chigo, is selected each year from local primary school students. This six year old is draped in silks and a crown as he leads the annual procession.


Other children are dressed in beautiful outfits accessorized with decorative swans.




Like the blossoming sakura that attracts millions of tourists to Japan from across the globe, children represent Spring's sense of purity, rebirth, and future prosperity.

However, this has not been a good year for cherry blossoms. While April 1st in Inuyama is usually marked by a vibrant backdrop of blooming flowers, an unusual shift in weather has brought a spring season lacking the renowned colorful flourishes. As the afternoon parade of children lead the dashi underneath the naked trees, my mentor and friend Yasuko Senda can't help but mention the number of kids participating seems to shrink each year.



For locals, the future of these festival traditions always feels precarious. During the opening ceremonies, Inuyama's mayor mentions another event happening simultaneously 30km away - the grand opening of Japan's first Legoland. Sure, it will contribute to the economic development and growth of tourism to Aichi Prefecture, but the mayor reminds the crowd that it's got nothing on his hometown's 383 year old festival.



Compared to performances of Bunraku and Noh, where the majority of audience members are elderly enthusiasts in their 70s and 80s, I feel like Japan's festivals are far from drifting into obscurity. I mean, I just had to scramble through a crowd 3,000 people to watch a puppet show. But the residents in small town Japan are more aware of the country's population decline and impact of locals migrating to urban centers. It's inescapable, no matter how busy the festivals get. The children, with swans rising from their backs and head pieces tangled into blinking LEDs, aren't just symbols, but physical treasures of hope and endurance. 



Inuyama Matsuri continues for two days, marked by a stunning night parade and another performance of the thirteen karakuri ningyo.


The shows on the second day are performed at the shrine. Each dashi is pushed towards the torii gate by a team of young men. 


Unlike other floats, the massive wheels allow men to gather underneath the dashi to push and pull the towering vehicles throughout the city.


The floats are are filled with the local children, who look down at the crowds with curiosity, as the puppets perform for the gods.


In the neighboring city of Ichinomiya, the small town hosts their own festival two weeks later. Given their close proximity, the two matsuri share a lot of similarities, particularly the slender and towering dashi. However, Ichinomiya's floats are more modest. Instead of expensive fabrics and ornate decorations, the dashi are decorated in white papers that symbolize donations received from community members.


Inuyama's city government allocates a large budget to preserve and promote the annual festival. However, Ichinomiya lacks government support. Instead, the festival relies on the local shrine, Iwato Jinja, to organize fundraising efforts. While the festival might feel a bit more unorganized, lacking the Master of Ceremonies and VIP tents for special guests, the event is filled with ritual, including the offering of seven well-dressed horses to the shrine's god before they are paraded through the town's streets.



While the dashi may not have the same ornamental flare or financial support as Inuyama, the karakuri ningyo in Ichinomiya are well-rehearsed and exciting. It's some of the best performances I've seen so far during the spring season.


While watching the mechanical puppets trapeze across the towering stage, it corroborates my new adage, "You can't judge a puppet by it's dashi."



Monday, April 24, 2017

The Timeless Wonder of Fusuma Karakuri

Five years after the end of World War II, citizens in Osaka gathered at Japan's first America Fair, where visitors explored scaled-down recreations of the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore. In Tokyo, onlookers gawked as live bikini clad models posed in department store windows while the sounds of Thelonious Monk and Stan Getz made their way across the country's radio waves.
Japan in the 1950s. The Atlantic. Mar. 12, 2014. (link)

Against the sounds of modern jazz and the whirlwind of General MacArthur’s Japanese reconstruction, the country witnessed a decline in traditional performance, specifically those art forms that stemmed from Shinto ritual, such as ningyo joruri. In post-war Japan, many linked Shintoism to Japan's pre-war militarism, and, as a result, puppet shows and traditional festivals, such as Nagoya Matsuri, were discouraged or banned. 

However, in 1951, during this new era of bikinis and home television sets, a small town in the mountains of Shikoku gathered together to rebuild a theater dedicated to a lost form of Japanese entertainment - fusuma karakuri.


Fusuma karakuri, or, as it’s known on Awaji island, dogugaeshi, features hand-painted panels, or fusuma-e, that slide in and out of a proscenium, twist in unison, and glide up and down to create intensifying stage murals that reach deeper and deeper into the playing space.


Similar to Kyogen, it was known as maku-ma, or a “between curtain show,” often performed after a Noh or ningyo joruri performance. After spending hours ensnared in the complex stories of Japanese dynasties and the linguistic cartwheels of the tayu, fusuma karakuri provided a mental recess. With only the strum of the shamisen, it activated a new part of the audience members’ minds where plot was cast aside for the magic of moving images. A mural depicting rabbits bounding across ocean waves glides across the stage to reveal a magnificent dragon while abstract floral patterns gently transform into a bamboo forest.



Transformation, or hayagawari, plays an essential part in noh, kabuki, and ningyo joruri performance. One of the most popular shows on Awaji island was Tamamonomae asahi no tamoto, where the performer is both puppeteer and magician, transforming costumes and characters seven times in one short act. Almost half of karakuri ningyo performances hinge on this moment of transfiguration, from a shinto priest turning into a miniature shrine to a graceful fan dancer morphing into an unruly lion.
When successful, these moments of transformation instantaneously alter the audience, leaving them in a state of awe. Fusuma karakuri is a celebration of this wonderment, a form of entertainment that connects audiences to that realm of surprise over and over again, tugging audiences through time and space.


In the 1930s, fusuma karakuri was a popular past-time in Tokushima, but today only five fusuma karakuri companies remain active in Japan, performing just once a year during fall and spring festivals. The only exception is Awaji Ningyo Za who has daily performances at the end of daily ningyo jouri shows.


This puppet company has modernized the fusuma karakuri technique by creating an aluminum fly-system on wheels. The fusuma-e are controlled by nylon string, carabiners, and puppeteers in the wings who slide the panels from the left and right.



Awaji Ningyo Za has sped up the the timing of a traditional show, and the modern contraption limits the movement witnessed in farm theaters such as Inukai Noson and Ono Sakura no Butai.

It was at Inukai Noson Butai's November festival where I first came across fusuma karakuri. I was immediately captivated and bewildered. As I watched the paper doors slide in and out of the proscenium to the sounds of the shamisen, I was in a state of disequilibrium. “How are they moving the images? Where's the story? What exactly am I looking it?” This chatter soon quieted down into a mollified acceptance, like the moment you give into a dream. I was hooked.



The next annual festival was in Kamiyama, about 30km from Tokushima City. After three months of e-mails, telephone calls, and assistance from my translator and friend Tatsuo Yasuda, I found myself riding a bicycle through the mountains of Kamiyama in total darkness as a river's resonant stride guided me back to the center of the road. As I held up my iPhone for light, I caught the glow of the theater, Ono Sakura no Butai, resting above the town’s Myozai district. Out of breath, Tatsuo and I climbed the stone steps to the rear of Tenno shrine, where the small wooden stage met us underneath a blossoming sakura tree.



It’s here I get to know the director of Sakura no Butai, Ogawa Kazkiyo. Ogawa-san is a generous mentor who is both intimidating and big-hearted. He speaks with deliberate and piercing gestures, commanding attention and thoughtfully answering my endless questions. He perfectly sums up the experience of fusuma karakuri to wave watching: captivating, meditative, and rhythmic. Like other forms of puppetry in Tokushima, I try to find its connection to religious ritual, but Ogawa-san quickly extinguishes this argument. There isn’t one. Fusuma karakuri is entertainment, a type of diversion that thrived in Kamiyama at a time when Japanese identity, specifically shintoism, was disoriented.

Ogawa Kazkiyo

Unlike many forms of traditional Japanese theater, such as Noh and bunraku, fusuma karakuri is easily accessible. It is language-less and doesn’t require prerequisite knowledge to fully appreciate. But it’s also for these reasons I’m surprised fusuma karakuri isn’t more widely celebrated. Even in the Japanese theater community there's a lack of familiarity. As I told Japanese friends I was headed to Tokushima to study "fusuma karakuri,” which translated to "mechanical sliding panel,” most assumed I was learning how to build automated doors. Fusuma karakuri is slighly more recognizable when it's called by its other name, dogugaeshi, especially on Awaji island. Yet, despite its accessibility and uniqueness, it remains a brief footnote in Japanese performance history.



In 2003, puppeteer Basil Twist embarked on a project sponsored by The Japan Foundation that realized a contemporary fusuma karakuri production that captured the essence of the traditional art form. Basil’s production premiered in 2004 and has been performed across the globe since 2014, raising awareness about the medium. However, Basil Twist's production, titled Dogugaeshi, shares the same name of the tradition. Given the lack of documentation and research on traditional dogugaeshi, a Google query only wields results regarding Twist's production, further obscuring fusuma karakuri's role as a valuable traditional Japanese performance.

This year’s performance at Ono Sakura no Butai will feature two scenes from international artists Andrea Dezsö and Adam Avikainen, who were inspired by fusuma karakuri during their time at Kamiyama's Artist in Residency program. As Ogawa-san mentions these artists he beams with excitement. He is proud to have their work in his show, and he spends a lot of time sharing their work with visitors and audiences. He is eager to explain Avikainen's inspiration for his pieces Curry Typhoon and Turkey Earthquake (making curry during a typhoon and cooking turkey during an earthquake respectively).

Adam Avikainen's Curry Typhoon

Photos of Andrea Dezsö line the dressing room wall. Over the last few years, Ogawa-san incorporated Dezsö's pieces as one of the final fusuma-e in the performance. According to Kamiyama's Green Valley Artist Residency, "this may be the first fusuma-e screens used in a performance in Kamiyama since 1930".

Andrea Dezsö's fusuma-e of human emotions ki, do, ai, and raku  (joy, anger, pathos, and humor)
Similar to ningyo joruri, a successful fusuma karakuri performance requires a intuitive connection between puppeteers. To make this a bit more complicated than your typical puppet show, your partner is standing 30 feet away on the opposite side of the stage. These puppeteers must find a shared breath and united rhythm as they pull strings, tie-off rope, grab painted doors, and twist bamboo rods.


During a performance there is a conductor who leads the puppeteers’ movements with the hyoshigi, two pieces of wood that are clapped together. Since fusuma karakuri has no human actors on the stage, mistakes are easily noticeable and can easily disrupt the rhythm. This makes the need for harmony between puppeteers even more critical. To help guide the process, Ogawa-san created a script that organizes all 241 panels, dictating their placement and movement.

The script also illustrates Ogawa-san’s process as a director of fusuma karakuri. He must take in account the way different movement can effect an image’s meaning. Although it makes things more complicated, he insists that the ten panels that compose a resting tiger must all be removed from stage right. “You can’t see a tiger split in the middle,” he insists. Ogawa-san is constantly considering how the movement and order of these images change context and alters the viewer’s experience.


After rehearsal at Sakura no Butai, we sit around a table eating American chocolate I brought from home. I ask about the puppeteers’ day jobs. There are two farmers, a machinist, a councilman, a florist, a house wife, and a metadata specialist. For one of the older puppeteers, this will be his 30th year performing fusuma karakuri.

They share memories from their youth at the theater, where the community gathered to watch outdoor movies, have picnics, and experience the captivating tradition. 

During the 1950s, as a golden age of cinema dawned and the future was broadcasted on television sets across Japan, a small town in the rural mountains of Shikoku came together to rebuild a fusuma karakuri theater. Today, as we're surrounded by smartphone screens and digital media, the wooden theater underneath a blossoming sakura tree, where a metadata specialist and farmer move painted panels in and out of proscenium, feels radically innovative. Fusuma karakuri reminds us that our sense of awe is not always tethered to the future - the past is still filled with wonder.




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Monday, April 10, 2017

Kiryu Karakuri Ningyo Theater & a Miniature Railroad in Pittsburgh


When I moved to Pittsburgh in 2011, I spent two years surrounded by one of the largest handmade miniature railroad displays in the Northeast. The Miniature Railroad and Village at The Carnegie Science Center began in the basement of Brookvsville native Charles Bowdish in the 1920s. Today, the 2500 square foot displays features handcrafted trees, sweeping foam-carved mountains, and tiny buildings illustrating Western Pennsylvania during the early 20th century. The display boasts a miniature model of Fallingwater constructed from limestone excavated from the actual site and a to-scale reconstruction of Forbes Field intact with a crowd fabricated from thousands of painted Q-tips.


From the Miniature Railroad and Village Facebook page.
https://www.facebook.com/MiniatureRailroadVillage/

However, despite the craft and artistry of these hand-built models, the biggest attraction at the miniature railroad are the trains. Kids will spend hours racing the speeding engines through the tiny streets or wait with fevered anticipation for the trains to chug out of the tunnels over and over and over again.


From the Carnegie Science Center Website 
http://www.carnegiesciencecenter.org/

During my time at the train display, my duties included assisting in the construction of models, train upkeep, and conducting tours for visitors. However, I spent most of my days in conversation with my co-workers: miniature train enthusiasts. These were life-long Pittsburghers, now in their 70s and 80s, who as young boys were once enamored with the roar of the Pennsylvania Railroad, transistor radios, and rector sets. Now in retirement, they returned to this childhood fascination, spending two days a week at the miniature village, a place where they could live amongst mechanical ingenuity and play.Like the youthful visitors that surrounded them, the volunteers devoted hours to the trains, tinkering with the Pacific Steam or cleaning the wheels on the Sante Fe Diesel.


Don Leech. Miniature Railroad Engineer.
From the Miniature Railroad and Village Facebook page. 
https://www.facebook.com/MiniatureRailroadVillage/

Last year, I spent one week in Kiryu City, two hours north of Tokyo, at one of Japan's only brick and mortar karakuri ningyo theaters. The group is made up of local retirees, and upon walking into their workshop filled with repurposed toys, tangled monofilament, and half-finished contraptions, it was if I stepped into a parallel universe. I was back at the railroad.




During the first day of my visit, one of the volunteers, Ishige, showed me around the theater’s fabrication shop. He had been fiddling with a new way of mechanizing a miniature ship so that it crossed the stage with wave-like oscillation. He had repurposed a children's push toy, refitting its mechanical skeleton into a pulley system of monofilament and plywood. Later, he showed off his collection of LEDs, eager to wire the lights inside interiors of miniature dioramas. At Kiryu Karakuri Ningyo Theater, craft wood, 9-volt batteries, and abandoned toys are in high-demand.




I was surprised by the theater’s use of contemporary materials and modifications, a rarity in traditional ningyo. However, Kiryu's practice grew without the strict delineation between puppeteer, builder, and musician that is prevalent in other areas. After World War II, the city's mechanical puppetry ceased for almost half a century due to economic uncertainty. Today, the group views revision as an alternative to being forgotten.




The city’s tradition dates back two hundred years at the city's Tenmangu Shrine. Before establishing a physical theater space, Kiryu's karakuri ningyo was presented outdoors as part of Tenmangu Matsuri. During this festival, six districts performed mechanical puppet shows for thousands of visitors. These spectacles were often miniature reenactments of historic samurai battles and Japanese myths.



Instead of traveling dashi, these puppet shows took place on wooden stages framed by embroidered curtains. The curtains, like the majestic floats of Japan’s matsuri, were ornamental masterpieces that showcased Japan’s finest textiles. Kiryu was once a hub of fashion, and local textile manufacturers sponsored the puppet troupes in exchange for utilizing the curtains to market their finest work. 

These curtains framed detailed miniature landscapes that were just as eye catching as the puppets. Each year puppet companies created new sets, capturing sakura trees, mountains, and Japan’s iconic castles. Kiryu’s Tennmangu Matsuri was a convergence of art, industry, mechanical ingenuity, and, through the magic of Edo Era hydropower, nature.

Unlike other karakuri ningyo performances, where puppets are manipulated from below through a series of strings and rods, many of the performances at Tennmangu shrine were entirely mechanized. Boats set sail, wooden swords were wielded, and samurai committed seppuku through a series of automated springs, gears, and pulleys set in motion by the flowing Kiryu River and waterwheel technology. 




Although it no longer energizes these automated performances, the waterwheel still remains. Today, only one Waterwheel theater still operates, the Chiran Waterwheel Theater in Kyushu. Chiran activates this theater once a year in early July. Luckily, Kiryu Karakuri Ningyo Theater is opened year round. In 1999, it took up new residence at Yano Warehouse, an abandoned soy sauce factory that has reemerged as a hip haven that hosts a craft market, art gallery, and movie premieres.



Inside Kiryu Karakuri Ningyo Theatre there are three waist-high stages about 12 feet long. There are no seats, except for a few folding chairs for the volunteers. The audience stands in the center of the room, rotating between the three stages for each performance.



The house lights are controlled by a volunteer who stands diligently at a light switch. Before the show starts, a puppeteer pokes his head out of the curtain to cue the elderly light operator with a nod. During a few of the performances, he falls asleep, and it often falls on me, or one of the audience members, to politely wake him up to dim the lights.

The week I spent in Kiryu City, the theater did something they’ve never done before - they performed their entire repertoire in one day. This meant they had to strike and remount two of the stages after lunch, and prepare the new shows for the next audience by 1pm. Around bento boxes, pencils, and printed schedules, the volunteers eagerly planed this transition, assigning jobs and discussing possible conflicts.

When the day arrived, the turnout was not what I expected. Only about three people came for the first half of this mechanical puppet marathon. However, despite the lack of crowds, we quickly performed the transitional duties with gusto.



During the second half of the day, some of the mechanisms malfunctioned during a performance. A samurai was supposed to throw a rope over the wall of a castle - however, the rope kept getting tangled on the toss. It’s certainly not a pivotal moment of the show, but the puppeteers stopped the performance, stepped out from the wings, and surrounded the figure. The audience looked a bit bewildered as the performers reset the puppet and attempted the miniature feat once again. The rope didn’t make it over the castle wall. Once again, the show was stopped and the rope toss is re-attempted. When it was finally successful, there was an excited applause - not from the audience, but from the volunteers who looked at each other with joyful victory.


While the audience exited, leaving a few hundred yen in a donation box, the volunteers returned to the puppets, discussing the new ways of activating the rope-toss mechanism in a flurry of excited voices.

Unlike traditional karakuri ningyo that binds communities to deeply rooted traditions, Kiryu illustrates the puppet’s ability to give life to its manipulators. Like the volunteers on the miniature railroad, the puppeteers at Kiryu Karakuri Ningyo Theater growing old while reigniting the curiosity that infused their youth. Keeping this flame fueled is a magic act, one performed by modifying tradition with some wood glue, monofilament, and discarded children's toys.




Monday, February 27, 2017

Puppet Island

After a short bicycle ride from Sanjō Ōmidō Hachiman shrine, I am standing at the entrance of a graveyard. There's no iron gate, stone markers or memorial plaques, only a winding camphor tree caught between the fall and winter season. With overgrown plants and wild daffodils, the cemetery feels a bit neglected - perhaps due to its inhabits. Six feet below are the remains of puppets, with wooden heads carved from cypress and tiny fingers hinged with whale bone, buried by puppeteers searching for a final resting place for their sacred figures beyond repair.

Sanjō Ōmidō Hachiman Shrine in Southern Awaji is the birthplace of the region's puppet traditions, where centuries earlier Shinto priests manipulated puppets to appease the god Ebisu and grant good fortune for the rural island dwellers.

As I mentioned in my previous entry, these puppeteers eventually teamed up with traveling storytellers, morphing their performances from religious ceremony into itinerant entertainment. They were also notoriously grunge, part of a lower class that embraced a bohemian lifestyle. Shunned from society, puppeteers found their home amongst the gamblers, thieves, and prostitutes. 

And here, in the Sanjō neighborhood of Awaji, was the center of it. But today the town is frightfully quiet, caught in an economic slump that has taken a toll on village life.



Like the puppets underfoot, the history of Ōmidō Shrine is concealed - but just 15 kilometers down the idle highway, past a McDonalds and kiddy park, there's a different story still unfolding.

Hovering above Awaji's Fukura Bay, the puppet theater looks like a charcoal-colored Millennium Falcon - a planetary visitor surrounded by abandoned storefronts, a fish market, and a Family Mart.


Awaji Ningyo Za (Awaji Puppet Theater) was previously located a short walk from the Sanjō Ōmidō Hachiman shrine. However, in 2012 it was relocated about ten miles south in the tourist-friendly Fukura Bay.

Inside, the performance hall is an air-conditioned memorial to the original theater. The proscenium is embellished in fragments from the Sanjō theater’s roof, while the rubble is preserved in rocky details along the interior walls. In the rear, glass cases showcase 16th century puppets and original hand-painted panels from fusuma karakuri performances.


Japanese lanterns line the perimeter and audiences sit in professionally-crafted bamboo benches. The design attempts to summon its rural island roots, but with the enormous embroidered curtain, well-crafted aesthetic, and gift shop in the lobby, it can't help but feel wonderfully artificial - like Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room. Instead of a Dole Whip, audience members are encouraged to purchase Awaji cookies branded with the face of everyone's favorite puppet god, Ebisu.


On a typical day, bucket hats fill the audience as many visitors arrive via bus tours geared towards regional retirees. There are typically three to five performances a day, each made up of three acts: a comedic ritual with the god Ebisu, an excerpt from a classical drama, and a performance of Dogugaeshi (fusuma karakuri). 

At first, this mash-up of day trip attraction and Edo Era tradition was difficult to reckon with. Was I actually experiencing traditional Awaji puppet theater? Was the theater's modernization and its condensed production style doing more harm than good? However, after spending a month in Fukura, observing rehearsals, talking to locals, and hanging out backstage, I came to realize that Awaji Ningyo Za is a traditional puppet theater with tourist attraction frills. These modern adjustments are masks worn to survive in the 21st century.



The Awaji troupe operates under a rigid training and rehearsal regime. The lead puppeteers, musicians, and narrators train for over twenty years. In December, the lead shamisen player, Tsuruzawa Tomoj, passed away. She had been performing for over 90 years. She was 103.

One of my favorite performances I’ve seen in Japan is Awaji Ningyo Za’s excerpt from Datemusume koi no higanoko. Confronting her own death to save the life of her lover, a young woman wildly dances across the stage as her long black strands deliriously fly around her face. The performance starts out graceful, but transforms into something more grotesque and chaotic. At the end of the scene, hair unruly, she climbs a bell tour, the puppeteers holding her arms from the inside. After intentional stumbles, she is thrown over the top of the tower, almost haphazardly. The scene is melodramatic and showcases the puppet’s feral qualities. This is one of the main differences between Awaji ningyo and Bunraku - its a bit more untamed. While Bunraku appealed (and appeals) to a more sophisticated crowd, Awaji was a tradition primarily performed for commoners. Even with the hawking of ningyo cookies, Awaji Ningyo Za still manages to preserve this wild quality.

Each show at Awaji Ningyo Za ends with a six minute performance of Dogugaeshi, also known as fusuma karakuri. Dogugaeshi is a form of rural performance where sliding hand-painted panels move in and out of a proscenium, delving deeper and deeper through an illustrative portal. I plan to write much more on Dogugaeshi in April. 


While in Awaji, I spend my nights at rehearsals as the troupe prepares for a performance at Tokyo's National Theater. The show calls for over 30 puppeteers, so members of the community assist and operate secondary characters. Their manipulation is certainly not too cultivated, but this is what makes Awaji Ningyo Za so interesting - it's tightly bound in the Awaji community. It's a city center, a sort of performative town hall, for the people of Fukura. Almost all of the local schools offer shamisen and puppetry classes, and there are a dozen performances every year featuring middle and high school students. Some of the these students even go on to work at the puppet theater after graduation. At the local cafe, the barista is excited to talk about the upcoming puppet shows. At the ice cream shop, the husband and wife owners generously give me an extra scoop since I’m a puppeteer. Awaji puppeteers are everywhere, saying hello at the post office or grabbing udon with their family at the local noodle restaurant. The longer you spend in Awaji, the more you realize that puppetry plays a vital role in the city's success, both culturally and economically. 



Although much smaller, Fukura reminds 
me of Takarazuka, home of the Takarazuka Revue, an entire city centered around one theater. In both Fukura and Takarazuka the puppeteers and performers are like adored athletes. Like a sports team, they offer the city a sense of purpose. While walking around Fukura it's obvious that Awaji Ningyo Za has fostered a sense of community, and might be why you can't help but be met with friendly and inquisitive neighbors throughout the town. 

Returning to the Sanjō neighborhood, there sits a museum dedicated to Awaji puppetry. Inside, you'll find 16th century puppet costumes, mechanized wooden heads, and miniature models of the Edo Era’s outdoor puppet theaters. But it’s every Saturday afternoon when the spirit of Awaji puppetry is on full-display. During my time on the island, I looked forward to these weekend visits, when a group of dedicated puppet hobbyists meet to carve heads, hinge hands, and thread wigs. 


The group has been meeting for over 30 years. They are creating puppets with the same materials and zest of those puppet-makers from centuries before. 


Together, in their 70s and 80s, they still trade notes and make hand-crafted guidebooks filled with photocopied pages and handwritten instructions.


They are generous with these references, sharing them without hesitation. It’s one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve had in Japan, watching how puppetry connects this group of artisans to their ancestors, to the region, and to a history spanning half a century. 


After my days at Awaji Ningyo Za, I often stop by a small coffee shop down the street from the theatre. Here, I take notes and chat with the barista about puppetry, his family, and the best food in Awaji. The barista recounts a time, twenty-five years earlier, when the then-governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, came to Fukura Bay and stayed at the luxurious Royal Hotel, a short drive away. “He enjoyed Awaji beef," the barista recalls. 

But this also speaks to another time, when Japan was experiencing an economic boom, and Awaji’s tourism was more active, attracting the likes of up and coming charismatic American politicians. But today, the town feels like it’s in limbo. It’s either on the verge of becoming a charming tourist destination or falling deeper into the unknown. This is the theme I keep coming across traveling in rural Japan. It feels like the uncertainty of Japan’ post-bubble economy is akin to the unresolved future of rural Japan and its traditional art forms. 

But it’s Awaji Ningyo Za’s mixture of community engagement and tourist appeal that gives Fukura a fighting chance. After a month in Awaji, the Star Trekian building stops looking so out of place, and stands like a celestial beacon for the future. During my last visit at the local cafe, the barista sincerely asks me if I’ve considered buying property in Fukura. “We need more puppeteers around here”. 


To learn more about Awaji Ningyo Za, please visit their website: