A Tohoku Tale for Girl’s Day


In my recent post about jubako, I mentioned that there was quite a story to tell about the soft cloth dolls displayed next to the porcelain in the photo above. As the second anniversary of the Great Japan Earthquake approaches and this Sunday, March 3 is Hinamatsuri, Doll’s Festival or Girl’s Day, I think now is the perfect moment to tell it.

Hinamatsuri is a festival that celebrates the healthy and happy growth of girls. Families with daughters everywhere set up very large traditional displays, with the hina-ningyo (dolls) placed along a red felt covered tiered stand with the Emperor and Empress at the top and the other dolls placed progressively lower based on their hierarchy. The dolls wear costumes of the Imperial Court during the Heian period (794-1192). Realistic furniture, lanterns and toy food complete the display and golden byobu (screens) provide a backdrop just like the real Imperial throne of the ancient court.


Charming miniature two doll displays are also very common as not everyone has room for a full display. The small peach blossoms are always included as it can also be referred to as Momo no Sekku, or Peach Festival, based on its seasonal calendar date.


These huge displays are very expensive to purchase and I am always amazed when I see families buying them new as I come across them at shrine sales all the time. I have to keep myself from buying them as they are so adorable. A little tip – they are great candidates for Western style repurposing as they make really unusual doll house furniture – great gifts for friends back home.

hinamatsuri furniture at shrine sale

Last year around this time – actually a bit later in March – my daughters and I, along with some friends, traveled up to Tohoku in Northern Japan to volunteer with a great grassroots organization called It’s Not Just Mud. Headquartered in a few partially destroyed houses, with little electricity and no heat, it was quite an experience for us as we had never suffered such a level of discomfort before. Just realizing that people had been living like this for over a year was an incredible eye opener.

its not just mud P cold

INJM makes it very easy to come and volunteer and they run a number of service projects that range from heavy labor (rebuilding playgrounds) to lighter but no less important social work.  We were lucky to be involved in the launching of their ‘Tsuna Cafe,’ in which informal tea parties were organized in the communal space of the “temporary” housing complexes (which look more semi-permanent by the day). The parties are a chance for residents to communicate with each other and meet volunteers who bring cheer and friendship.  One of the post-tragedies of the earthquake and tsunami is that village and neighborhood links were lost as residents were assigned to housing units on an ad-hoc basis. No attempts were made to keep communities together and the majority of those unable to rebuild or move elsewhere are quite elderly.

tsuna cafe photos

As this was one of the first times the Tsuna Cafe was being held, the kids went around to all the units and rang door bells and distributed flyers announcing the party. My younger daughter, who was 8 at the time, rang one bell, but as no one was home, she began to walk away. A woman opened the window and beckoned for her to come over. She handed her the flyer and the woman gave her a bag of small bean paste filled donuts and told her that she had very beautiful eyebrows – which happens to be true. She thought no more about it.

We assembled for the tea party, putting out snacks and getting ready to use our best Japanese. My elder daughter had made many friendship bracelets in advance, expecting the children to want them. Ironically, many of the older women were clamoring for them!

friendship bracelets at the Tsuna Cafe

After a while, an elderly woman came in carrying a paper bag and approached my younger daughter. It was the same woman who had complimented her eyebrows! She opened the bag and took out what appeared to be folded cloth. Her Japanese was so colloquial that we couldn’t begin to understand her so one of the very fluent volunteers came to help translate.

hinamatsuri in tohoku

Basically, she told us how after the war, when everything was destroyed and she had nothing, an American soldier gave her an American doll and that changed everything in her life because she had something to play with and love. She never forgot this moment of kindness and sewed these small fabric Hinamatsuri dolls many, many years ago, with a plan in mind to give the Japanese dolls in turn to an American child. She had been waiting and waiting for the right child to come along. As she presented them to my daughter – we were all crying by now – my sweet little one said “Mommy, it’s a miracle!”


Somehow, in all the excitement and bustle we never got her name. But my daughter will have those dolls and that memory forever.

We are hoping to go up again this spring and perhaps we can find the doll lady. Please remember that the work here in Northern Japan is nowhere near done, even though it has faded from the news. And for a small organization like It’s Just Not Mud, every donation helps.  For more information on volunteering, please click here. For more information on making a donation, please click here.

Related Posts:
The Porcelain is Alright (Kids Too)…My Tale of the Big Japan Earthquake
Hands On Tokyo…A Taste for Volunteering 2012

Shrine Sale Stories…Vintage Matchboxes, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel and The 1948 London Olympics

Today was slim on the ground for shrine sales being the second Sunday of the month, but Tomioka Hachiman did not disappoint. It was a day full of friends from out-of-town and extraordinary porcelain, including a few cute and very atypical Japanese pieces bought for the beach house. The small green iris pickle dish will be perfect on the dresser or night table in the beach house guest room for holding jewelry and other trinkets.

It reminded me of the Korin Ogata screens and the garden at the Nezu Museum.

The small Imari-meets-lustreware dish has all the pretty colors in the downstairs rooms of the beach house. Don’t know how I’ll be using it – perhaps as part of a wall display, perhaps on a stack of books on the coffee table to hold olive and cherry pits.

But the person who had the most fun today was my elder daughter who happened upon a stall selling vintage matchbooks from the 1930s-1950s. We have often seen matchbox covers mounted on pages, but not often the entire matchboxes. The dealer had hundreds of them in three big boxes and she spent significant time sorting through them and putting together a charming collection which we plan to place in a shadow box frame. You’ll note her signature colors of lavender and blue.

The story comes as she was choosing her boxes. Much to her chagrin, another man came up behind and offered to buy zenbu – everything – from the dealer. It hadn’t occurred to us and we were immediately sad to see the entire collection go! Luckily, the dealer offered us a few as “service” gifts for making a purchase before he sold off the boxes. We managed to grab a few historical gems.

The first matchbox, dated 1939, features Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Imperial Hotel, with its stylized logo on one side and Mt. Fuji and an early version of the Shinkansen (bullet train) on the other.

Finished in 1923, the hotel was one of Wright’s masterpieces, famously surviving the Great Kanto Earthquake that year, and in use as the premier Tokyo hotel until 1968 when it was deemed outdated and tragically torn down.

The other matchbox could not have been more timely, featuring the 1948 London Olympics on one side and the 1952 Helsinki Olympics on the other.

Wondering what they might fetch among collectors. Ebay maybe?

Image Credits:  Iris photo by Joseph Keating, via Atsuko & Joe, Imperial Hotel postcard via Old Tokyo, all other photos by me.

Beach House Dreaming…”Rooms to Inspire by the Sea”

Even though it is finally warming up here in Tokyo and the cherry blossoms are opening more than a week late, I can’t seem to stop dreaming about summer. Perhaps it is the fact that just about everyone else I know here went off to some tropical paradise or another for spring break vacation, while we remained in quite unseasonably cold Japan. That being said, the girls and I did go up north with some dear friends to do relief work in Ishinomaki, a town devastated by the tsunami last spring. I want to give a shout out to the amazing organization that made our experience possible – It’s Not Just Mud – a small grassroots group that makes it easy to volunteer in Tohoku. I want to remind everyone that the work in northern Japan is still very very far from finished, even though it has basically vanished from the news. Every little bit helps, whether it be real-time work or a donation, and we found that most of all, people were just happy to see us. I have some special stories I’ll be sharing soon!

Many of my favorite bloggers have been posting about Anne Kelly’s new book Rooms to Inspire by the Sea and I think that is what has pulled me back to planning the next round of renovation work and decorating at our beach house. As I have scrolled through whatever images I can scavenge on-line, I can’t help but notice lots of inspiration links between some of the homes in the book and choices I have made or plan to make at our house. Some of the houses featured I am quite familiar with and have seen elsewhere, while others are new to me, but almost all of them have that elusive something special – that truly personal and lived in feeling – that I want so badly to achieve in my own home.

One of the first photos to catch my eye is this lovely porch, although I can’t credit which house it comes from. In addition to the all the green wicker, I love the way they have used accessories to really make this space a room.

I have been furiously collecting vintage wicker wherever I can find it, and let me tell you, it has not been easy. I am constantly laughed at when I inquire for the real thing. These days, all the “wicker” out there deserves those quotes as it is some type of plastic or other unnatural material, touted as being more durable than wicker. I find it ugly and actually it gets weirdly dirty and moldy, so I have been tracking down vintage wicker pieces and painting them the same color green. I don’t know if that would have been my first choice of color, but as the house came with a brand new exterior paint job, I decided to go with it and have been very pleased as the paint unifies pieces from different eras.

While the houses in the book that speak most to me are the Hicks-Wood, Scheerer and Derian homes, this cabinet from a project by Martyn Lawrence Bullard caught my eye.

I am still working my way along with my cabinet, trying to decide how I should improve the interior finish (paint? wallpaper? opinions please!) and some better styling, although I don’t have the luxury of space to display decorative coral. My cabinet needs to be a real workhorse, holding serving and eating china, silver, linens and just about everything we need in the dining room.

Having seen many of the interiors of India Hicks and David Flint Wood before, there is one particular new view that I absolutely adore. Perhaps it is the softness of the palette, the palm fronds, the birdcage-like fixture…I can’t quite put my finger on it. (And remind me to tell you about the amazing birdcage I bought at a recent shrine sale. As always the big question is how to get it on the plane!) My color scheme in the photo above looks a bit one-sided and just the blue grey, but elsewhere in the room I manage to capture many of these soft shades. Somehow, I never have the right shot I want for the post!

Similar in color and feel is this view of Chris Mead and Zoe Hoare’s Hampton home, although it is more literal in its seafaring references.

Moving on, the color in Tom Scheerer’s bedroom photo is perhaps a little brighter in this photo than it is in person, based on previous photos I have seen of the room. I do love the replacement of the kitschy legs lamp he had there before with this coral one.

My bathroom color looks a bit washed out in this photo, but I think you can see an inspiration link anyway.

Steven Gambrel’s moody glass display…

…makes me think of mine, only this one is here in Tokyo, not near the sea. Quite a bit has been added since this shot, and I think it has reached its perfect point. Any more, and it might tip…

Which also brings to mind what seems to be an alternative cover, which comes up when I try to order the book in Japan. I know the floats in the giant clam shell is kind of a cliché but I still love it! Driftwood lamp and bottles too!

The big projects looming at our place are the master bath and kitchen. I think I may have found a good vintage door to use in the bathroom to convert the entry to a pocket door. Love the simple panels, especially on a small door.

And I have been inspired by a friend’s recent renovation…

and by Brooke Giannetti as well…

…to pursue my inspiration photo a bit more and possibly use a free standing over mount sink in the master bath after all. It is so easy to convert a cabinet or table to a vanity this way.

As for the kitchen, watch for a big upcoming post on that. I know I keep promising and not delivering, but I am needing to sort out two posts – one for what I really want to do when I gut the whole thing – and the other the shoestring budget DIY plan for the meantime. This is an inspiration photo from Heather Bullard I keep coming back to that works for either scenario.

The next two weeks are super busy for me – I hope you will bear with me if posting is light – as my elder daughter is having her Bat Mitzvah on April 14th. But I will be posting about the sakura (cherry blossom) inspired party details!

Image credits: 1-2, 4, 6-8, 10 & 12. Rooms to Inspire by the Sea, by Anne Kelly, photographs by Tim Street-Porter, some of the images via Mrs. Blandings or Style Court, 3, 5, 9 & 11. me, 12. V. Felgner, 13. via Velvet & Linen, 14. via Heather Bullard

Hands On Tokyo…A Taste for Volunteering 2012

With the tag line “Be the change. Volunteer,” Hands On Tokyo addresses the critical needs of the community by partnering with other organizations focusing on educational and social issues in Tokyo as well as disaster relief in north-eastern Japan. By collaborating with partners to create projects designed to meet their needs, [they] provide numerous volunteer opportunities for any individual or corporation looking to make a difference in the community. Currently, Hands On Tokyo has over 3,100 registered volunteers, arranges over 300 volunteer activities a year, and has given back more than 21,000 aggregate volunteer hours to the Tokyo community. 

Tokyo Jinja is proud to have donated this amazing rare and valuable glass senbei (rice cracker) canister from the early 20th century with raised glass lettering and original lid to the upcoming event “A Taste for Volunteering” in support of Hands on Tokyo.

There is still time to sign up and attend as well as bid on this senbei jar and a host of other prizes!

DATE:  Friday, February 3, 2012
Reception: 6:30 Party: 7:00-10:00 PM
LOCATION: The Capitol Hotel Tokyu
COST: ¥20,000 per person
DRESS: Semi-Formal

Hands on Tokyo has been doing incredible work in Tohoku and I was lucky enough to have helped on a project to feed 600 people in Iwanuma last June. We made and packaged some of the desserts while having fun together. If you can’t make the event, I highly recommend signing up for some of their volunteer activities which you can do by clicking here.

For more on vintage senbei canisters, see Country Kitchens and Rice Crackers…a visit to Tomioka Hachimangu.

The senbei canister sold for 73,000yen last night! It was the HOT item of the night. I am so pleased!

Back in Business…The Higuchis Unveil Their Newly Rebuilt Studio

While Dalia was off visiting the Mashiko Pottery Festival last week and checking on post-earthquake progress there, I was busy visiting Kimiake and Shin-ichi Higuchi, two of the world’s foremost Pâte de Verre glass artists up at their newly rebuilt studio at the northern end of Nikko National Park. As you might recall from a previous post, much of the Higuchis’ studio and about 40% of their artwork had been destroyed in the Great East Japan Earthquake. The weekend of November 5-6 was their joyous open house – a celebration of their rebuilding and faith in going forward – and we were lucky enough to be invited. Ironically, they had set up their entire exhibit by Thursday afternoon the 3rd, only for there to be a fairly strong quake that evening, which many of my local readers will remember. For safety, they took everything back down and only put it in place just before the weekend open house.

Simple linked buildings flooded with light house their bedroom, living quarters and studio, all surrounding their gorgeous garden which is the main source of inspiration for their work as well as much of their actual food. Upon arrival we were greeted by giant cabbage leaves spread about the grass. They were so life-like, we weren’t sure if they were glass or not!

Everything in the studio was back to being ship-shape and orderly. The rows and bins of glass powders and frits were a modern installation all their own. In the spirit of recycling, all the broken glass works are being ground down and re-used.

We got to see their process from sketch…

…to detail demonstration…

…to finished installation.

Their renderings of the everyday vegetables and flowers around them are so life-like as to almost be surreal. The asparagus looked so delicious that I was ready to pick it up and eat it.

The bearded irises were amazing.

Color and detail, here on a cyclamen panel…

…and here on a trumpet vine.

The little boxes and vessels made me swoon – I wanted this little sakura box…

…or the wisteria.

Some boxes had secret surprises inside.

Can you see the snail and the water droplet on the hydrangea leaf?

I don’t often include pictures of my kids on the blog, but here she provides a sense of scale. Keep in mind she just turned 8. Largest glass cabbage known to man – perhaps the original was the largest ever grown too.

Speaking of the girls, the younger ones had a ball catching praying mantids in the garden. They strongly suggested that Shin-ichi remake his praying mantis sculpture which had been broken in the earthquake.

And the pièce de résistance, which I cannot resist showing is this…

…their bathroom counter, covered in glass roses, and even including clear glass water drops and a few small insects.

Warm thanks to the Higuchis for hosting us and to Debra for introducing us!!

The previous week, Keiko Iishi, a former assistant to the Higuchis during a Corning Museum of Glass education program and a glass blowing artist in her own right, held a charming solo exhibit in a small Ginza gallery. She had been so disheartened by the loss of family and friends in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that she had planned to cancel this long-awaited show. With strong encouragement from her supporters, she decided to go forward and it was a treat of color and pattern.

Having just made butterbeer with my elder daughter and her friends, the piece in the center rear, entitled “Honeydukes,” caught my eye. Keiko, a huge Harry Potter fan, said I was one of the only ones to get the reference.

Congratulations to Keiko on a very successful exhibition!

The net result of viewing all this modern glass art? I think we might need to sign up for classes at Hot Sand on the Asbury Park boardwalk this summer.

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