Tokyo: Everyday Beauties from All 47 Prefectures

Photo by Taku Yaginuma / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun
A visitor looks at colorful Sanuki Kagari Temari, traditional Japanese handballs crafted in Kagawa Prefecture.

There is an unusual museum in Shibuya, curious in that it contains no permanent collection of “art” per se, but rather offers an ever-evolving assortment of curios culled from all corners of Japan.

Upon entering the d47 Museum, visitors will find 47 stands displaying items made in the 47 prefectures, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, and everywhere in between. The rotating exhibitions are organized under a fixed theme, showcasing, for example, representative accessories or fermented foods that exemplify the local flavor of each locality. The current exhibition explores modern design’s intersections with mingei folkcraft.

The concept is simple. Each 90-centimeter square stand is dedicated to a single type of item, displayed alongside a tiny label affixed unobtrusively in the corner denoting its prefecture of origin.

My attention was caught by the contribution from Chiba Prefecture, a glittering array of glasses in vitreous blue, pink and green. The glassware evidently hailed from a workshop in Kujukuri. “Not doing anything unnecessary is the key to forming beautiful glass,” read a succinct museum label.

Atop the Aichi Prefecture stand sat a steamed cake made of sugar and rice flour called uirou. Produced by famed Nagoya confectioner Aoyagi Sohonke, the treats were parceled into bite-sized white and tea-green squares that evoked the traditional checkered ichimatsu pattern. Perfectly shaped and colored in subdued hues, they looked like stylish paper cards.

The temari handballs from Kagawa Prefecture were adorably round and adorned with charming floral patterns. Moving on to Kagoshima Prefecture, I initially mistook the white towels on display for traditional textiles. It turned out the towels were from a tourist hotel, and the real focal point was the embroidered logo that referenced a local camphor tree.

As I traveled from stand to stand, I came to realize that all the things in our everyday life fall under the umbrella of design. I also saw how it could be a fun exercise to search out items from one’s own hometown, or even little treasures from areas one feels a special connection with. I appreciated how the museum’s spartan approach to textual commentary largely let the items speak for themselves.

The “folk craft movement” was formally declared by Muneyoshi Yanagi and other craftsmen in 1926. They advocated that beauty is to be found in quotidian life and that ordinary utilitarian tools, smelted in the furnace of regional culture and tradition, are every bit as beautiful as fine art.

The items currently on display are not one-of-a-kind, yet neither are they churned out on an industrial level. They fall somewhere in between, in the “just right” scale of mass-production.

“We simply present things that we feel an immediate response to, instead of referring to information in the media shared online, even if we can’t always articulate the reason why we like something so much,” explained Kenmei Nagaoka, director of the d47 Museum. Nagoaka said Yanagi put extra emphasis on his gut feeling.

After my vicarious tour around Japan, I for one was left with the keen impression that all the prefectures are blessed with beauty well-deserving of a bit of regional pride.

Photo by Taku Yaginuma / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun
Glasses by Sugahara Glassworks Inc. in Kujukuri, Chiba Prefecture

d47 Museum

8F Shibuya Hikarie, 2-21-1, Shibuya, Shibuya Ward, Tokyo