A collection of netsuke at the Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Museum Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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Netsuke: Accoutrements that have become art

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By Vicki L Beyer

Netsuke are those darling carved toggles that appear to hang as decorations from obi but actually have a very practical role in the traditional dress ensemble.  Since traditional Japanese garments have no pockets, to carry anything on one's person requires tucking it into the sleeve, the front closure, or the obi belt. For larger items, the logical spot would be the obi, but as one moves about, there is the risk that gravity and motion will cause the item to slip through and become lost. This is where the netsuke comes in.

Netsuke literally means "to attach roots". Thus a netsuke is a sort of anchor attached to a cord the other end of which is attached to the item one wishes to carry--the most common items being a purse, a tobacco pouch, or a medicine box (known in Japanese as inro). The item gets tucked into the obi, with the netsuke hanging out over the top so that even if the item slips down, it cannot fall away because the netsuke holds it.

Apparently the use of netsuke in this way began in the 17th century, coinciding approximately with the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate. They were originally simple beads or weights. But as objects that were visible parts of a garment in a time when flashy garments were prohibited, it stands to reason that netsuke would evolve into decorative objects. And perhaps the Japanese penchant for miniatures also played a role.

Although there is an image that netsuke are carved from ivory, in fact ivory is not the only medium used. The teeth, horns or tusks of other animals, stones, wood, shells and even nuts and other seed pods are also common. Sometimes a netsuke is a composite of materials, for example ebony for the body and ivory for the face of an image of a god.

Early netsuke were not regarded as art objects and were made by craftsmen, often on commission. Thus they are not signed or dated. Complex works can take years to produce.

As netsuke evolved, some well-known artisans emerged who did actually "sign" their work by carving in their special mark, but this was not a widespread practice during the Tokugawa period. Instead, netsuke are usually dated by their style and valued based on the uniqueness of the subject matter chosen by the craftsman/artisan and the quality of its presentation, including how it feels in the hand.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The subject matter of netsuke varies widely. Gods, creatures (mythical or otherwise), and characters from legends or literature are common, but so are scenes from daily life such as a fisherman preparing nets, a sandal maker at work or a samurai hunting wild boar. Sometimes the netsuke will be a pun (puns being very popular in Japan) or a symbol (for example, a frog is used to symbolized making a safe return on a journey--buji ni kaeru)

There are even shunga (erotic) netsuke, often looking quite ordinary at first glance but upon moving a small piece, opening the netsuke, or even just turning it over, something a bit naughty will reveal itself. These form their own special genre and some collectors focus only on shunga.

Since netsuke have become an art form, there are artisans working in this genre even today. In fact, labor costs rising as they have, some contemporary pieces can actually cost more than the antique ones. In case you're curious, netsuke can cost anywhere from 10,000 yen to millions of yen.

At those prices, maybe you'd prefer to just look, or look closely before you decide to become a netsuke collector. There are a number of places you can go for this.

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Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Museum Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Museum, situated in an early 19th century private family home, is a wonderful collection made even more wonderful by its beautiful setting. The collection contains more than 4,000 pieces, but only 400 to 450 are displayed at a time, with the entire display changed quarterly. One room of the house features seasonal displays that change monthly. All of this makes the museum worth visiting each and every time one travels to Kyoto.

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Photo: VICK L BEYER

The museum's collection includes both antique and contemporary pieces. The titles of the pieces are displayed in English, and contemporary pieces also identify the names of the artists, many of whom are still living.

Although some say that netsuke were made to be handled, understandably the museum displays its collection behind glass. Some pieces sit on a rotating dais to allow visitors to examine all sides. Others are displayed with a magnifying glass or a mirror to optimize viewing.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

In the kitchen of the house a video shows an artisan at work, enabling visitors to better understand how netsuke are produced. There is also a display of the various carving implements used. Visitors may well emerge feeling awestruck.

Address: 46-1 Mibukayougosho-cho Nakagyo-ku Kyoto

Access: 10-minute walk from Omiya subway station

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (Open on Mondays that are public holidays and closed the following day instead; closed over the New Year's period)

Admission: 1,000 yen (adults); 500 yen (high school students and below)

Website: https://www.netsukekan.jp/en/

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Netsuke at Sagemonoya Photo: VICKI L BEYER

In Tokyo an excellent opportunity to see, and even handle, netsuke can be found at Sagemonoya near Shinjuku Gyoen. Sagemonoya is a shop/gallery devoted to, in the words of proprietor Robert Fleischel, "everything to do with the obi." Thus they have on offer not only netsuke, but also all the various items traditionally attached to the netsuke. Most of their inventory are art-quality antiques.

The netsuke are kept in compartmentalized trays, which is a traditional way of storing them. The friendly and helpful staff will bring them out for visitors to examine and are also happy to spend time explaining particular objects, their provenance and their meaning or symbolism.

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Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Sagemonoya is also host to the International Netsuke Society, making it a center for promoting knowledge and understanding of netsuke and sagemono (literally, "hanging objects"). They produce catalogues of netsuke or sagemono, usually themed, every couple of years, to provide collectors and others with information and insights into these art forms. Their catalogues and a number of other books form a small library in one corner of the gallery, which visitors are also welcome to use.

Address: Palais Eternel 704, 4-28-20 Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo

Access: 5-minute walk from either Shinjuku Gyoen-mae or Yotsuya san-chome subway stations

Hours: 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday (or by appointment)

Website: http://www.netsuke.com/

Also in Tokyo, from now until Jan 28, 2018, the Prince Takamado netsuke collection is on display at the Tokyo National Museum. The prince's collection of mostly contemporary netsuke, considered one of the finest collections of its kind, was donated to the museum following his untimely death in 2002. As they are only displayed by the museum every few years, this is a rare opportunity and should not be missed.

Access: 10-minute walk from either Ueno or Uguisudani JR stations

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Admission: JPY620 (adults); JPY410 (university students); free for seniors (over 70) and students in high school or below

Website: http://www.tnm.jp/modules/r_exhibition/index.php?controller=item&id=5242&lang=en

Finally, a shopping tip. Although antique netsuke are becoming harder and harder to find, if they are part of the inventory at an antiques shop, they are not likely to be on open display. So be sure to ask if a shop has any netsuke and if you can examine them. Besides antique shops, another place to search for netsuke is at a jewellers, especially one that specializes in ivory pieces.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a free lance travel writer who also blogs about traveling in Japan. Visit her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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