It was the last weekend in May and I was happy to be back in Matsumoto (松本) after an absence of a few years. I was one of the scores of visitors making my way to the annual craft fair. The city in Nagano Prefecture is about three hours from Tokyo on the Azusa Line, and I took a train that would get me to the city with time to spare for the opening of the craft fair at 11 a.m. I wanted to arrive early before some of the more popular handicrafts sold out.
As I descended the stairs from the station, I could see a desk manned by a handful of craft fair staff ready to help. A commercial shuttle bus was standing by to carry visitors from the station to the fair’s venue, Agatano-mori Park. The city was all prepped up for the two-day event.
The rainy season had not yet started here in central Japan and the sky was clear and sunny that Saturday. It was already getting hot, but I chose to join the column of people trekking to the park. Matsumoto is a compact city, and most places are within walking distance. The sun beat down on our heads as we made the 20-minute walk, but the air lacked the summer’s humidity and it was still relatively cool in the shade.
Matsumoto is located in a basin surrounded by a range of mountains — Japan’s Northern Alps. As there are no tall buildings, the mountains can be seen from many locations, which is one of the attractive features of this scenic city in central Japan.
As I approached the park, I could see that there was already a fairly large crowd milling around the entrance. As a rule I do not like crowds, but I was prepared. I had heard from the local people that the turnout at the fair — which started 31 years ago and is one of the oldest of its kind — is getting larger each year. Visitors are also going to the park hours ahead of the official starting time to get their hands on the best of the crafts.
The rows of stalls and tents displaying the crafts extended from the entrance to all corners of the park. This year 271 craftsmen brought their work, a third of which were either pottery or porcelain. But, you could also find many other kinds of handmade items – lacquer ware, glass, woodworks big and small, leather craft, jewelry, shawls, shoes – even watches and speakers — and much, much more. The style of the crafts ranged from the rustic to the sophisticated.
Tall trees at the entrance provided a welcome shelter from the sun. Organizer said that the turnout this year was about 20,000-22,000 on both days.
Tents to display the crafts.
Pottery was prominently on display. Japanese teapots. Turquoise blue bowls – a relatively unusual color for Japanese pottery.
I spoke to Kayoko Kobayashi from Kanagawa Prefecture near Tokyo. She said it was the second time she had brought her porcelain plates to the craft fair.
It is extremely competitive getting chosen at Matsumoto. By some account, there are five times more applicants than places available. But at least you are not disqualified by age here, Kobayashi said. According to her, some craft fairs have an age limit because the aim is to encourage younger artisans. She also makes ceramic buttons.
Elsewhere I ran into a clay menagerie. Two monkeys hugging on the grass. Also a squirrel with an acorn.
Matsumoto has a long history as an area that makes handcrafted wooden furniture. A child riding a “rocking grasshopper.”
An attractive display of intricate bamboo crafts.
Lots of glassware sparkled in the bright light. After hours under the sun, they were hot to the touch. My attention was drawn to some pear-shaped vials, both in clear and in colored glass. I thought they might be scent bottles. Daisaku Hashimura, the artist who created them, told me that they were called “furidashi” – literarly meaning to “shake out.”
He explained their use. They are containers to hold sugar candies – “konpeito” – offered as sweets during traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Hashimoto, who turns 41 this year, spent 12 years abroad as a child, in countries like Peru, Spain and England. Those years spent overseas have helped increase his appreciation of Japanese things, he said. As somebody with a similar childhood background, it was a sentiment I could empathize with. He also makes everyday wares such as glass cups and bowls.
This azure blue bottle is a “furidashi.”
You can see the tiny candies inside the bottle from a window-like opening. I was really tempted to get one – except that at about 10,000 yen it was a little pricey. Perhaps one day I will get one.
There was also lots of lovely lacquer ware.
There were also items that defied categorization. I had seen this artist’s work in Matsumoto before. As you can see they are pretty unforgettable!
They make you stop in your tracks and marvel at how they are made! Ice cream bars that won’t melt. Hirotoshi Ito, the artist who works with stone, has also exhibited his work overseas.
Prices of the handicraft are not cheap. And you cannot bargain for the goods. But, I like to pick up something at the fair as a memento of the trip. This year I chose something rather unexpected. I got a handy, cube-shaped speaker. It was only a few hours into the first day, but they were so popular that there were only a few left.
Each speaker was made from a different kind of wood, hence the different shades.
Yujiro Yamamoto, on the left, is the creator of this hand-made speaker. Masateru Yasuda, on the right, is his friend who is an artisan in his own right. He makes bicycles where most of the key parts are made of wood. At this year’s craft fair he was helping his friend.
Yamamoto、a former teacher, said he had first participate in the craft fair in 2011. That first year he hardly sold any of his speakers, he said. Yasuda’s bicycle was also on display. He was an apprentice for a number of years in Italy. Yasuda and Yamamoto have now made Nagano Prefecture their home.
You can run into foreigners in some pretty remote parts of Japan these days. But, at least this year, I hardly saw any foreigners at the craft fair in Matsumoto. One of the few was a globe-trotting, onsen-loving Spanish physicist, Anatael Cabrera, who is currently based in Paris but who also works with universities in Japan. He said he specializes in the study of neutrino. I had absolutely no idea what it was but it sounded impressive!!!
Smiling broadly, he was obviously having a grand time at the craft fair in Matsumoto, which he was visiting for the first time at the invitation of his friend Yasuda. Cabrera, who enjoys wooden crafts and pottery, said he sees similarities between his work as an experimental particle physicist and being creative. “I do my art through my work,” he said as he relaxed in a director’s chair after a meal of ethnic food from one of the many food vendors at the fair.
The number and variety of food vendors had increased dramatically from my previous visit a few years ago. There was pizza being prepared in an oven. And hamburgers. Very American!
There were also noodles, the ubiquitous curry, bread, baked sweets, coffee and other drinks. A van selling gelato was doing a brisk business.
There was a bohemian atmosphere to the event with many families bringing their young children and pet dogs. A street performer provided some entertainment.
By Sunday noon, I was feeling content but a little overwhelmed by the heat, crowd and all the crafts, although I don’t think I could have looked at more than a third of what was on offer. It was time to head back into the city.
It is no coincidence that Matsumoto is host to a craft fair. The city, which has long been associated with handmade products, also has many craft shops that are wonderful to browse through. One of the shops that I always make a point of visiting is Maestro, which is run by the Miyahara family. The shop has an attractive selection of pottery, glass ware, lacquer, wooden crafts, baskets among other items.
Shiho, who helps her father run the shop, said that Matsumoto had an industry of woodworks, textile and baskets woven by bamboo that thrived before World War II. The industry had lost much of its energy by the time the war ended, however. The “Mingei” folk art movement, which saw beauty in crafts that people used on a daily basis, helped revive the industry in Matsumoto. A city official was particularly instrumental in helping to restore the city’s tradition of woodcraft. He helped promote Matsumoto as a producer of fine wooden western furniture, she said.
The craft fair is not Matsumoto’s only cultural event on the calendar. It also hosts a classical concert, recently renamed the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival. Several classical concerts are held from August to September every year. The city has also hosted a number of Kabuki performances. Yayoi Kusama, the modern artist, was born in Matsumoto, and one of her artworks dominates the entrance to the city’s museum. The vending machines at the museum were covered with her signature dots. Of course.
Access: Shinjuku –> Matsumoto (between 2.5 to under 3.0 hours depending on the Azusa train)
Fare: About 7,000 yen one way, but varies slightly depending on the season
The craft fair is held every year on the last weekend in May. Many other art-related events are held in the city throughout the month.