Saturday, December 4, 2010

Lean On Me

One of the things I like to do while in Japan is visit antique shops. It's not because I want to maximize my investment or anything like that - at least not financially. I have my own reasons, and it's not some obsessive compulsive disorder. Is there something wrong with liking nice things, or having things you enjoy having?

My favourite place to visit is a small shop called T. Takemoto (after the proprietors) on the drag in Nikko, in Tochigi-ken.

After several visits with Ashley, I used to go there by myself taking the 40 minute JR (Japan Rail) train ride into the provincial capital of Utsunomiya to the south, and then another 40 minute train to the north west into Nikko.  

I used to go there and look for ukiyo-e (Japanese wood block prints) - not the type you can buy at a department store, but the ones that were made 150 years ago or more. You can visit here to see some of my collection - UKIYO-E. Others are framed and behind glass  - and really, they are too large to place in a conventional scanner. My friend Cordell at work was kind enough to scan the ones for me on a large work printer and scanner.

At Takemoto's after they realized I was always up for spending a Y20,000-50,000 ($200 - $500) on some of their ancient prints, they began letting me go up to their vault hidden away from the general public, where I would pore over literally hundreds of these fantastic items and determine what I liked (all of them) and then determine what I could afford that month.

But this blog isn't about ukiyo-e.

On my first trip into that shop, I saw under a glass table a komainu - which I understood to mean 'Korean lion dog - 'Koma' for Korean, and definitely 'inu' for dog). It was made from ivory and the sculpting was called netsuke, which is what the Japanese call small ivory (and bone) carvings and figurines.

The the shop owners - the Takemoto's (a husband and wife team who gave Ashley and I green tea (o-cha) to warm us up after walking through the rain), told me it was carved over 220 years ago (as of 1990). I fell in love with it immediately. (See photo above).

The Japanese, when they first saw these statues thought they were dogs, hence the name, but in reality it was the Korean version of a lion - hence the mane around the creature's head.

They taught me that the komainu (as pairs) were placed to the right and left of an entranceway to a shrine or temple to ward away evil spirits from entering. There are always supposed to be a pair - one with it's mouth closed (my carving), and one with its mouth open.

I bought it for about Y20,000 ($200) and kept it in my place for a few months. When December of 1990 came around, I remembered it would be my grandfather Tom's birthday in early January. I carefully wrapped up the komainu and mailed it off to my grandfather and told him to keep it at the base of his door to his bedroom - as it was there to lend protection to him and keep him safe until I got back.

He loved it. And was very happy with my gift.

Unfortunately, in February, he died--in the very room I sit now typing this story out. A week previous, my cat Sam died... I guess the two were intwined because he enjoyed talking to the cat - and when he went, my grandfather lost a good friend.

I was very saddened to hear first about my cat and then my grandfather passing away, and it wasn't for another year and half that I returned home to pay my physical respects. I'll tell you tomorrow how I paid my spiritual respects.

When I got home in the summer of 1992 for a brief respite and to buy new clothes that would fit me, I noticed my komiainu netsuke sitting in the living room on a shelf behind glass. I asked my mom about it. She explained that her dad (my grandfather), thought my gift was too valuable and too nice to sit on the floor beside his door, and asked that it be put someplace safe.

He wanted to protect it, and all I wanted it to do was to protect him. My komainu wasn't able to do its job... or maybe he needed his open mouthed partner to help him complete the job. I figured he could do it alone, as there was only one way a person can enter a bedroom in the West, thanks to a door hinge.

Somewhere you can't trust things to do what they are supposed to do,
Andrew Joseph
Today's title is sung by Bill Withers: listen HERE.
PS: Today was the day back in 1990 that I mailed the komainu netsuke to my grandfather Tom (photo below).

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