Archive for February, 2013


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

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So I’ve been making lots of teasing comments about koi and kasuri lately, with a very good reason. This year, our annual quilt for The American School in Japan Gala fundraiser is a deep indigo pool made of kasuri, with three charming carp frolicking in the rain. Koi are the beloved ornamental varieties of common carp that are kept as pets in ponds and the word koi is itself a homophone for another Japanese word that means “affection” or “love”; koi are therefore symbols of love and friendship in Japan. The name of the quilt, Carpe “Triem”, reminds us to seize the day (or seize the quilt!) and is a play on our trio of friends. Inspiration came in many forms, from modern woodblock prints, like this one, ‘Pillow Talk” by Daniel Kelly

2011 Daniel Kelly prints Pillow Talk

…to ‘Whisper whisper 7′ amongst others from Kaneko Kunio.

Kaneko Kunio Whisper

Koinobori, meaning ‘carp streamer’ in Japanese, are carp-shaped wind socks traditionally flown to celebrate Boy’s Day (now called Children’s Day), which falls on May 5th every year. The carp has become the symbol of Boys’ Day because the Japanese consider it the most spirited of fish—so full of energy and power that it can fight its way up swift-running streams and cascades. Because of its strength and determination to overcome all obstacles, it stands for courage and the ability to attain high goals.


We also had high goals for ourselves as quilters, wanting to create a very individual and special quilt while at the same time longing to do another boro (rag) background quilt, featuring vintage indigo textiles, a bit reminiscent of the beloved Dragon quilt of 2007. I was lucky enough to come across a few great pieces of kasuri, the Japanese form of ikat, in which the thread is dyed prior to weaving. Kendra had some other gorgeous pieces in her stash and we were easily able to assemble the patchwork background from a myriad of pieces and patterns.

kasuri quilt background

Using some photos of real koi, Julie drew our koi on graph paper free hand – she is so amazing!


I figured once we were using such gorgeous fabric for the background, there was no chance modern fabric could hold up its head against it. So back out to the shrine sales I went, in search of antique and vintage shibori (Japanese tie-dye), brocades and other silks. While the fabric would be gorgeous I knew the quilters would be hating me a bit as silks are so hard to work with.

orange shiboriorange shibori

The patterns in the shibori was perfect in giving almost a literal effect of scales. And the bold colors – oranges, yellows and golds – against the deep indigo was spectacular. Just trying it out by draping a fish shape had us all excited.


As we started late this year and the Gala was a week earlier than normal and we planned for the koi to exuberantly overlap the borders, we had to work a bit out-of-order this year and put the borders on early.


Julie’s husband enlisted the local copy shop to blow up the hand sketched koi, one graph paper square to one inch and we were able to use them as patterns.


The day we spent cutting the fabrics to create the fish was my favorite quilt day in all nine years I have been working on the ASIJ quilts.

yellow koi

With each fabric we tried to bring out its innate nature…

orange koi fabrics

…and have the details suggest the very details found on the fish.

orange koi

We used iron-on stabilizer to give the pieces some weight and make them opaque.

black white orange koi

We basted the quilt top to a simply patterned dark blue background and placed the fish into their new home in the pond.

basted quilt

As we loved the echo quilting we did last year, we decided to do it again – this time as raindrops on the pond. Here you can see the circles marked out at one inch intervals. If you look closely you can also see the detailed quilting in the fish fins.

echo quilting marking

I just love this detail shot with the shibori circles reading as fish scales and the rain drops quilted into the kasuri.

orange carp 001

The crowning touch was finding a perfect silky orange binding – I don’t know how we got so lucky! Not a perfect frontal photo, but the slight angle brings out the details of the echo quilted raindrops.

2013 ASIJ quilt

This quilt, with its evocative design and meticulous craftsmanship, masterfully captures and conveys our long-lasting affection for Japan.
More in-progress details can be found over at My Quilt Diary and A Quilter By Night.

Related Posts:
Coming Full Circle…A History of the ASIJ Gala Quilt
The ASIJ Quilt…Summer Breezes: Furin in the Rock Garden

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I was young, newly married, and in need of a table and chairs to serve as both kitchen and dining room table. We had the typical NYC galley kitchen in our apartment in an old 19th century school building. The space had a loft-meets-country feel and I was still pretty firmly embedded in the 19th century Americana that was my original antiques specialty, although my tendency to pull from the Aesthetic Movement was already quite marked. Quite soon after moving in we were driving home from a friend’s house in Connecticut along Route 2 or 202 or something like that, chock-a-block with antique stores along the way, so of course we had to stop. We picked up a few great things that day, including an antique clock case we turned into a medicine cabinet, but the standout find was a bargain set of six black Hitchcock chairs.

hitchcock chairI’ve always had a weakness for Hitchcock chairs, which are so quintessentially American, but also one of the very first mass-produced pieces of furniture ever made in this country. Originally produced during the second quarter of the 19th century by Lambert Hitchcock, a Connecticut cabinetmaker, they are easily identifiable by their black or dark paint, simple Sheraton shape, gold stencilled details and rush or caned seat. It’s estimated that by the late 1820s, Hitchcock’s company was selling over 15,000 chairs per year. After closing in 1852, the company remained out of business for almost a century only to have a resurgence in the second half of the 20th century when the factory was reopened on the ongoing waves of Colonial Revival popularity. I’d date my chairs as vintage – perhaps 1960s or 70s – as the truly antique examples I’ve come across don’t seem like they could hold up to everyday wear and tear.

Once we had the chairs, we needed a table. I knew I wanted something that didn’t match. This doesn’t sound exciting or particularly revolutionary now, but at the time, people were still buying ‘suites’ of furniture, whether matching couches and love seats or entire bedroom and dining ‘sets’. The table had to be practical as my sweet husband was not going to stand for constant coaster/place mat/tablecloth use. The coloring of the rush seats looked great with light woods as did the dark contrasting paint. But the apartment was open like a loft and fairly dressy, so finding the right thing became a bit of a challenge as the obvious choice – a rustic farm table – didn’t seem right.

polaroid of tableDoes anyone else remember the days when the western edge of Bleecker Street was still full of antique stores, before the Marc Jacobsvication of it? There was one great mixed shop called Clary & Co (I think they may be still around on 1st dibs) that I checked in at all the time. Once day I was lucky enough to find this – a finely detailed Danish Victorian scrubbed pine table. I still have the Polaroid (!) they took for me to take home to think about it. If I recall correctly, we tied it to the roof of my parents borrowed station wagon to get it home the ten blocks or so.

We were so excited by the combination but the ultimate vindication came not much later from none other than Thomas O’Brien of Aero Studios when his country house was profiled in the February 1994 House Beautiful. He had Hitchcock chairs (his high school graduation present!) pulled up to a similar pine table. He was even using an antique Empire dresser as a sideboard – as we were and are – my own first ever real antique furniture purchase. He had a glass hurricane lantern hanging above the table, just like we did – although I have to point out that his was nowhere near as beautiful as ours (a Dixie Highway find).

Over the years I started collecting every Hitchcock chair photo I came across. Earlier shots tend to have that more cluttered country feel, but all have a common denominator in that the tables and chairs mix materials successfully, from grey painted wood…

…to white…

…to more pine…

…to speckled paint treatment in a formal dining room…

…to cheery cottage sun porch…

…to cosy dining corner.

For all their country coziness, Hitchcock chairs have a very spare silhouette – and much like paper cut silhouettes which are hugely trendy again now – that old-fashioned black profile can really feel modern. So along the way, as tastes changed, designers began to pull on the simple streamlined form of the chairs and highlight that. One of the first to do so was Victoria Hagan, here with a set that have a Washington Vase back shape…

…and again here with a combo of cane and rush seated versions. Both are all about the dark/light contrast and the sculptural shape of the furniture.

Picking up and running with that same idea is architect Gil Schafer, first at his Hudson Valley home Middlefield…

…and later the exact same table and chairs moved to his apartment in New York City. Again note the combination of dark chair and rustic light table.

Schafer uses Hitchcock chairs again in his other residential projects.

A master of that simplified American vernacular, Schafer has an amazing book
The Great American House: Tradition for the Way We Live Now that should not be missed!

Another master at highlighting sculptural antique forms through light and dark is Darryl Carter, using Hitchcock chairs and a bench in this recent room from the June 2012 Elle Decor.

As a testament to their surprising flexibility, they mix with this very modern white table as well.

So this is where I stand. After long daily use, the chairs are dying. The rush seats are breaking and the art of re-rushing does not seem to exist in Japan. The wood frames are getting shaky too. I have been playing musical chairs with the wonkiest ones. And perhaps, just a little bit, I am visually ready for something new and fresh. Now don’t get ahead of yourself, I’m not talking radically new – I don’t think that is where I am heading, but maybe something new antique.

I can’t remember exactly when or where I got the idea of changing the Hitchcock chairs for Thonet style bentwood chairs, another 19th century iconic choice that has such a stylistic yet functional presence. My instincts are that the idea starts with Tom Scheerer‘s influence. His spectacular interiors are littered with different versions of classic Thonet, but he particularly likes to use No. 4, the Cafe Daum chair.

He mixes them with very modern tables extremely well.

The irony of changing to bentwood chairs is that from a historical furniture manufacturing point of view, Hitchcock chairs and Thonet bentwood chairs were almost contemporaries. Michael Thonet set himself up as a cabinetmaker in 1819 and began to experiment with bending wood, ultimately patenting a steam technique around 1840, allowing his chairs to be mass produced.  Both styles of chairs represent a huge departure from the past – economically, socially and stylistically – in that they created affordable, well made, functional pieces that appealed to the new popular taste.

It wasn’t hard to come up with inspiration examples like this similar table to mine mixed with black bentwood in the Scott Weston designed kitchen of Kirstie Clements.

I’ve found numerous examples of black or dark bentwood chairs looking great with casual light wood tables. These aren’t a Thonet style, but I can’t resist including them, because the whole kitchen is so fab.

Here’s another view – I do love this kitchen.

Here a vintage marble-topped wood table and black bentwood chairs anchor a modern space…

Sarah Story bentwood chairs singaporePenthouse

…as they do in this older version of Muriel Brandolini‘s kitchen.

And I don’t want to rule out the idea of color as they look wonderful painted. Perhaps a Prussian Blue?

Kim Raver Bridgehampton dining room In Style 1010

The Conran Shop sells a version of Chair No. 14…

…while Crate & Barrel sells their own version of No. 18.

A great company called Bauhaus 2 Your House sells almost every version of bentwood chair available today and they are all fully licensed.

bauhaus 2 your house bentwood chairs

The problem is that I need the choices to be readily available in Japan. I’ve been keeping my eyes open for modern examples or vintage ones. Geographica along the antiques hub on Meguro-dori has these dark wooden No. 14 chairs available for sale.

One of the advantages of bentwood chairs is that they are open to the mismatched look – you can charmingly mix a variety of the styles.

So another option might be the shrine sales. There is a dealer at the Oedo Market at the International Forum that always has a selection. And I’m seriously loving the idea of a deep Prussian blue which would allow me to unite a disparate set…
bentwood at oedo market

Goodbye Mr. O’Brien? Hello Mr. Scheerer? What do you think?

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