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A Takayama Doll's House

Colorful creatures come to life among the rice fields, in the mountainous heart of Japan.

by Nanban

Within walking distance of one of Japan's best-loved tourist attractions - Hida Folk Village, an open-air museum made up of thirty original old farmhouses, each representative of a traditional Japanese mountain region architectural style - in the Takayama suburbs, in a small shop Hiroko Tanaka and her husband carry on the traditional making of Takayama dolls.

Each doll recalls in small details of its decoration typical elements of the Takayama region, but also memories of the family that manufactures them: the eyes of the horse, for example, reproduce the profile of a grain of rice - widely cultivated in the surroundings - while the design of the dog has been modified over the years taking inspiration from the dogs that belonged to the family.

The design is not frozen in time, but undergoes small changes, retouches, rethinkings, adaptations to the adventures and impressions that knock on the workshop’s door every day: the design of the Japanese zodiac signs, for example, following the sign of the year undergoes small or large adjustments, thus giving each doll a further uniqueness.

Generally, when printing on paper, one color at a time is added, but as the fabric is elastic in the case of Takayama dolls all colors are printed at once: “It's a difficult task to put multiple colors on a single plate; speed is very important because you have to put all the colors before the first one dries".

In addition, to create different shades, both pure colors and color blends are used, the elaboration of which takes time and considerable effort, in an attempt to keep the colors as homogeneous as possible. But the variables are many, from humidity to the variable absorption of colors by the wooden mold, so that there are always small differences related to the artisanal nature of the process and the use of natural materials.

Once the fabric has been hand-printed and hand-sewn, it is time to fill each doll with rice husk, ideal not only as a recycled material, but also for its perfect consistency, “neither too light nor too heavy”.

Finally, we move on to the phase of steaming the dolls, to fix their color: the dye reacts to heat and develops the color, each in a different way. Red becomes brighter, brown becomes darker, and the color development method varies for each color. If, at the end of the process, the color is different from that desired, we start all over again, with Japanese patience and attention to detail.

A ritual that is renewed every day, with an inexhaustible passion.

(photo courtesy Tomoko Nishizawa)