Have you ever heard of the traditional toy, “Kijiuma”? Kijiuma are made in a simple shapes with colorful patterns, and two attached wheels for rolling around on. Just like how the famous “kokeshi” dolls are to northeastern (Tohoku) Japanese culture, the Kijiuma have become an iconic toy of the Kyushu region. It has also come to receive great recognition from overseas.
Despite its popularity, the facts about the origin or history of Kijiuma, as well as why it is only made in a small part of Kyushu, are not well known. For this article, I visited Hitoyoshi City of Kumamoto Prefecture, one of the places in which Kijiuma are made, and learned thoroughly about the toy’s appeal.
What is a Kijiuma, the local toy of the Hitoyoshi area?
A Kijiuma is a wooden carved toy with wheels attached to a thin body. It is also known as one kind of souvenir in Kyushu, so you may have seen it at a souvenir shop while you visited Kyushu, or at a Kyushu product exhibition.
However, Kijiuma is quite a broad term, and the shapes and designs of Kijiuma vary greatly according to where they are made. For example, Kijiuma made as a souvenir of Kiyomizu Temple in Fukuoka Prefecture have four wheels attached under the body. There is also a saddle-like protrusion on the back and it is decorated with only a few simple colors.
Kijiuma in the Hita Kusu area in Oita Prefecture are two-wheeled. The head piece has an L-shape like a bird’s beak or a horse’s head, and these have a saddle-like portion on the back too. The most distinctive feature is that it is not painted. It retains the texture of the wood and is the simplest, most minimal style of Kijiuma.
Kijiuma in the Hitoyoshi Kuma area in Kumamoto Prefecture also come in a two-wheel design. The straight body is very simple with no protrusions, but it is painted with geometric and floral patterns in 5 vivid colors. Their striking visuals make them easily recognizable, and many people seem to picture the Kijiuma of Hitoyoshi when thinking of the toy.
Hitoyoshi Kijiuma’s vivid colors catch people’s eye
Originally, Kijiuma were popular as an auspicious symbol for a child’s healthy growth. I heard that in the Hitoyoshi Kuma region, Kijiuma were sold at stalls on the Boy's Festival (May 5) and parents who had male children bought them each year.
Although most Kijiuma sold today are much smaller, the original size of Kijiuma was big enough for boys to ride and play on. It may have been like a modern pedal car or a children’s bicycle. Of course, Kijiuma sold at souvenir stores are generally all about the same size as your palm. There are also some about the size of a little finger with a key ring.
Kijiuma that you can ride and play on
History of the Kijiuma: The “Heike refugees“ & the Hitoyoshi-Kuma Region
The Kijiuma in the Hitoyoshi region stand on a backdrop of a rather a sad story.
Firstly, to give some context:
The Genpei War was a national civil war between the Taira and Minamoto clans during the late Heian period. It resulted in the downfall of the Taira and establishment of the Kamakura shogunate under Minamoto no Yoritomo in 1192. The name Genpei comes from alternate readings of the Chinese character Minamoto 源 (Gen) and Taira 平 (Hei). In this context, Genji refers to the Minamoto clan, and Heike means Taira clan.
Since the Kamakura era, the Hitoyoshi region was a kind of hidden village in a basin surrounded by mountains. About 800 years ago, the Heike refugees who escaped from the Genji’s pursuit secretly lived in the backwoods regions of Hitoyoshi such as Kijiya or Otsuka.
It was from the hands of these Heike refugees that the Kijiuma were originally born. Yearning for the vibrant cities that they used to live in, these members of the fallen Taira family began to craft these colorful toys. It is hard to imagine at first that the vivid colors and designs of Kijiuma were created in quiet mountain villages, but understandable once you know their background.
Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto’s Hidden village surrounded by mountains and rapids
What do the name and colors of the Kijiuma mean?
The Kijiuma have a variety of mysteries. There are several theories about the origin of the name Kijiuma; it has been theorized that the name came from the the town (Kijiya), or that it imitates the wild bird Kiji (pheasant), or that it is due to the Kijiuma being made with wood materials (ki= tree ji=material).
Huge Kijiuma the same size as a horse
The vibrant colors and patterns are believed to be associated with the culture of the capital where the Heike refugees used to live.
There is also a historic shrine called Aoi-aso Shrine in Hitoyoshi city, and once every 50 years, it conducts a Shinto ritual called Taiho On Shimesai. One of the tools used in that ritual is a 5-colored Gohei (wooden wands, decorated with two zigzagging paper streamers) whose 5 colors are said to represent all parts of the universe. The fact that this combination of 5 colors (blue/green, yellow, red, white and black) are the same colors as those used on Kijiuma, might not be just a coincidence.
The vivid colors are more brilliant with the simple shape
Another mystery are the characters “daiichi” (大一）written on the Kijiuma's forhead. Usually it is said that these characters were derived from the regional name Otsuka (大塚) where the Heike refugees lived secretly, or it is said that the escapees wrote the characters to remember the Daimonji bonfire (A festival held every August 16. Five giant bonfires are lit on mountains in Kyoto, a former capital of Japan. The first fire is in the shape of the “大” character called Daimonji (大文字).
However, recently there has been another theory linking these characters and the Grand Ise Shrine. It is said that the Kijiuma’s shape originates from its similarity with the carrier used for moving logs for the shrine renewal at the Okihiki ceremony at Ise Shrine, which is one of the rituals for the Shikinen Sengu (An event that has been held from about 1300 years ago where the shrine and furnishings are newly rebuilt every 20 years, and the renewed Shinto shrine is used to pray for the deity Go’s transition.) Some of the carriers used for moving logs show the “太一（大一）” characters on their wheels or signboards.
Unfortunately, all the answers of the mysteries have not been identified. That being said, it is still exciting to imagine various possibilities.
There is a theory that Kijiuma is related with the Okihiki ceremony at Ise Shrine
Places in Hitoyoshi where you can find Kijiuma
Go to Hitoyoshi to discover Kijiuma
The Kijiuma is a symbol of Hitoyoshi. You can find Kijiuma in various places including souvenir shops and roadside stations, but also on billboards in the city, tiles on the ground, shrine brochure containers, and more. If you go to a Kijiuma factory, you can see the rare sight of Kijiuma.
There are only two Kijiuma factories in the city
Even though there is a more than 800 year production history of Kijiuma in Hitoyoshi, there are only two remaining factories, named the Sumioka Folk Toy Factory and Miyahara Industrial Arts. The craftsman says that “Even though they look so simple, you need a long-standing intuition to create a satisfactory shape”. It seems that it takes a long time to develop successors who inherit the important traditions.
Because the shapes are so simple, they require the craftsman’s deep intuition
Experience Kijiuma painting at the Hitoyoshi Craft Park "Ishino Koen"
In order to expand knowledge about Kijiuma to as many people as possible, trial experiences are hosted by factory staff and the government are held. One of them is the painting workshop at the Folk Craft Museum, located inside the roadside station Hitoyoshi Craft Park Ishino Koen. You need to make a reservation in advance, but even just one participant can take the workshop.
Folk Craft Museum in Hitoyoshi Craft Park Ishino Koen
The making of Kijiuma: a craftsman's thoughts
For the interview, this time I specially requested to see the production process of Kijiuma before trying the painting workshop. The craftsman who showed me the process was Mr. Tadayoshi Sumioka, of the Sumioka Folk Toy Factory. Through his decades of experience, Mr. Sumioka has developed an extremely precise set of skills.
The first thing he showed me was Paulownia wood used to make the Kijiuma and a small hatchet called a Yoki, which is the tool for scraping the wood.
Paulownia wood and Yoki
First, roughly cut the Paulownia wood into a piece with a saw and then scrape the wood using a Yoki, the small hatchet. The wood is worked upon with consideration for the wood’s natural warp and distortion, making it such that no two Kijiuma are made the exact same way, or result in the same shape.
Confirm the wood’s size and shape
After confirming the direction of the Paulownia wood’s grain, he continued by scraping it with a Yoki. It was outstanding that the simple piece of Paulownia wood immediately began changing into the shape of a Kijiuma.
Quickly and precisely making the shape
The procedure was so quick but this is completely wrong. Mr. Sumioka told me that if somebody who is not familiar with handling a Yoki tries to copy a Kijiuma, the wood surface will become bumpy. It was understandable that making Kijiuma requires many years to develop the proper intuition.
A beginner’s cut surface became so rough like the left sample
Trying Kijiuma painting myself
After watching the production procedure, It was finally time to try Kijiuma painting. At first, I compared a painted model and the white undercoated body, to grasp an idea of my finished product. The next step was to sketch an image. While painting, detailed advice was available at key points so there was no need to worry.
Painting challenge while getting advice!
First, start with the yellow collar parts. Even if the yellow paint runs outside the lines of the sketch, you can cover it with red or black, so there is no need at this stage to be overly careful. The beginning part is very easy even for a person who is not familiar with how to use paint brushes.
Let’s start from the easy part
Put simply, the procedure is careful coloring into pre-lined spaces. Although it may be tempting to focus on one spot at a time, I realized that it is much easier to proceed when considering the general balance and composition of the coloring.
Check and compare both sides while painting for a good balance
After the yellow, I painted the red part. Since the red color is dark and difficult to correct mistakes with, it made me quite nervous to paint with. There is a technique to this step too, and that is to not paint in spots, but in long lines that follow the pre-drawn divisions.
Try to paint like drawing a long line
It is important to sometimes stop painting, and compare your progress with a the finished product. Use the professional’s work as a reference, and try to aim for a level of completion at which you feel satisfied!
Work while comparing with a model
The most difficult part without a sketch is the eye pupil. With the help of the reference and your intuition, aim to paint a clean circle. Once you finish drawing the eyes, draw the characters Daiichi (大一) to finish.
Drawing the eyes in a perfect circle is the most difficult part.
When you finish painting, put a string through the hole at the tip. Now it is time to catch your breath. The attachment you will feel towards this Kijiuma that you painted with your own hands, will be unlike any other piece!
It is complete with a string through the hole
The Kijiuma: A Local Toy & Historical Craft!
The Kijiuma of Hitoyoshi city, Kumamoto Prefecture is a traditional craft only produced in this city. Kijiuma produced from natural wood completely by hand, all have unique shapes. I recommend visiting Hitoyoshi and finding your favorite Kijiuma. Of course, at that time, please do not forget to try the painting workshop.