Aichi: Ogre Masters Attract New Attention to Old Craft

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hisashi Hagiwara, an onigawara roof tile specialist, works in Takahama, Aichi Prefecture, on an order placed by Chionji temple in Kyoto.

TAKAHAMA, Aichi — Hisashi Hagiwara was working intently with a spatula in a quiet studio in Takahama, Aichi Prefecture, one day in late November.

Hagiwara, 69, creates onigawara, decorative ridge-end roof tiles traditionally bearing the face of a demon. However, these are not average roof tiles. They’re works of art.

Onigawara depict demons, ogres and hideous monsters and are believed to ward off evil spirits. As such, they have been used in traditional Japanese architecture since ancient times.

Upon completion, the onigawara Hagiwara is working on will be installed on the roof of Chinjudo hall at Chionji temple in the Hyakumanben area in Kyoto. The hall is designated by the government as an important cultural asset.

Making onigawara requires high standards of craftsmanship. The art form’s specialists, like Hagiwara, are called “oni-shi,” which literally means “ogre master.”

Hagiwara carefully attached clay parts one by one to the main body of the work while frequently measuring the dimensions of a sample onigawara that had been brought to the studio as a reference.

Hagiwara had started working at 7:30 a.m. and continued until after 10 p.m.

Takahama is a production base of Sanshu roof tiles, which are one of Japan’s three major roof tiles, along with Sekishu tiles produced in Shimane Prefecture and the Awaji type made in Hyogo Prefecture.

Onigawara occupy a special corner of roof tile production in Takahama. In fact, the city is called the “home of ogre masters” as about 50 onigawara specialists are active there, representing about 70% of the total number nationwide.

Roof tile production is a key industry in Takahama, along with the auto sector, that supports many jobs.

Ogre attraction

Takahama has been capitalizing on its ogres to promote the city.

There is a tourist attraction in Takahama named Oni Michi (ogre street), a 4.5-kilometer-long walking path with a huge monument in the shape of an ogre mask made with four tons of clay, as well as other structures. There is also a roof tile museum displaying many kinds of tiles.

In collaboration with the popular anime “Kimetsu no Yaiba” (Demon Slayer) that features many fiends, 14 local onigawara craftspeople produced roof tile-shaped monuments depicting various characters in the animated movie. The monuments have been on display in front of city hall since October.

“I don’t know much about the anime, but I wanted to make the city a livelier place,” said Hagiwara, who created one of the artworks.

“Many fans of ‘Kimetsu’ visit [the display] every day,” a city official said. “I hope it will be the impetus for people to learn about the charm of onigawara,” a city official said.

In recent years, Hagiwara has often been asked to take part in projects for repairing and restoring cultural properties.

He has worked on the roof tiles of several historically valuable buildings, including Kinkakuji and Kiyomizudera temples in Kyoto and Zenkoji temple in Nagano.

Hagiwara was asked to create onigawara for Chionji temple by the chief of the cultural assets protection division of the Kyoto prefectural government.

“Making roof tiles to be used when repairing cultural properties requires an extremely high skill level,” she said. “The Takahama onigawara specialists are indispensable for this work.”

However, as is the case with many traditional industries, the roof tile production business in Takahama suffers from a decreasing number of successors. After peaking for about a decade around 1965, demand for onigawara has fallen sharply due to changes in Japanese people’s lifestyles.

There used to be nearly 90 onigawara specialists in and around Takahama, but that number has decreased.

“My daughter told me, ‘I can succeed you,’” Hagiwara said. “But it’s a hard way to make a living,” he added with a dejected look on his face.

However, there are some positive signs.

Takahama’s onigawara craftspeople started to interact with art college students through a decorative roof tile competition hosted by local entities. Some students wanted to become onigawara makers after learning that they would be accepted even though they are not from local onigawara-making families.

Such former students account for about half of more than 10 current onigawara craftspeople who are not local natives, according to the Sanshu roof tile industry cooperative.

“The art of onigawara has a history stretching back 1,400 years,” Hagiwara said. “I’d like it to continue.”

Building ties with baked goods

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Members of the social business project team at Takahama High School have a meeting around an original cake mold.

A team of local high school students has been contributing to their community by uniquely making use of techniques utilized in the local roof tile and automobile industries.

The social business project (SBP) team at Takahama High School earns money by selling anko bean paste-filled cakes baked in the shape of the local B.League basketball team’s mascot. The aluminum mold used to bake the confection was made by automotive engineers utilizing an original clay mold created by an onigawara craftsperson.

The SBP team sells the sweets at the basketball team’s game venues. Proceeds are used to invite children to the basketball team’s games.

The cakes received national attention as a product representing community ties. As a result, seven high schools in Hokkaido, Kumamoto Prefecture and other places have followed suit.

The SBP team receives orders for such molds, too.

“We’ll make use of the spirit of manufacturing and broaden the scope of our activities,” said a third-year student and the team leader.