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Island of Lost Toys


When I lived in Kurashiki, the Bikan Historical District was a place where my wife and I liked to indulge in quiet, reflective walks or meet friends for drinks and dinner. A few years ago, I traveled back to Kurashiki, Japan to visit a friend and I had the opportunity to revisit the Bikan. I only spent two days wandering it’s narrow streets, but I took copious notes and began writing about my experience. Since then, I have written and rewritten this piece several times. This is my latest revision.

Island of Lost Toys

The Bikan Historical District lies in the heart of the city of Kurashiki, Japan. The Bikan is a slice of Japan’s past ornamented with gardens, cherry trees, and quaint little shops. According to many residents, times spent in the Bikan are for quiet, simple reflection. Kurashiki is a traditionally conservative city of five hundred thousand people. Located in the western region of the main island of Honshu, Kurashiki is a city divided into several different municipalities, districts, and neighborhoods with the Bikan Historical District as the most revered. 

Kurashiki means “storehouse” and nowhere is that more evident than in the Bikan. Split by the Kurashiki River, the Bikan stands as a vivid reminder of the Japan of old. In the Edo period, samurai walked the paths on either side of the river guarding boats unloading many kokus of rice to be stored in the white tiled buildings of the Bikan, which at that time were currency and power. The area has not changed much since that time. Those same buildings with their narrow latticed windows, stark white stucco, and stone tiled roofs framed by cherry trees and weeping willows still stand vigil over the river today. However, they do not store rice for safekeeping, they now guard Japan’s past. 

Kurashiki Rural Toy Museum
The Kurashiki Rural Toy Museum in the Bikan Historical District in Kurashiki, Japan.

It was here, in this area of the city, that I decided to eat, rest and collect my thoughts. After a lunch of okonomiyaki, I ventured out into the Bikan and found myself in the middle of the annual Kurashiki Music Festival. The festival was in full swing with many musical acts from all over Japan. Almost magically, an old man with a gray handlebar mustache wearing a black tuxedo came up to me. He was riding a bicycle and  playing the clarinet. He stopped to ask, in very good English, “How do you like festival?” Before I could answer, he began playing Benny Goodman’s “Memories of You.”

“Ah, I have a sweet sound you like? Benny Goodman is my favorite,” he sung.

“I like it very much, thank you,” I sang in reply.

His name was Okamoto Jiro. He began playing the clarinet at the age of twelve and has been a local favorite at the last sixteen music festivals. I thanked him for the song and kept walking down the crowded path, music coming from all directions. As I walked past a shop window full of toys, an elderly man with two days stubble on his chin and kind grandfather eyes caught my attention. He was adorned in a maroon polyester shirt tucked into gray plaid pants that hovered just above worn brown shoes. He was humbly standing in front of the Kurashiki Rural Toy Museum.

“Would you like to see Japan toys of the past?” he asked in accented English.

Hai!” I responded as he guided me inside.

Not only was it a museum, it was also a toy shop. I looked around and immediately regretted my afternoon schedule and wanted to spend more time investigating. I asked if I could come back tomorrow for the guided tour. He agreed. The rest of the day was spent in a cornucopia of music. 

When I arrived at the toy museum the next day, the same elderly man greeted me with a warm smile, minus the stubble. His name was Ohga-san and he was the owner of the toy shop and curator of the museum. It seems quite natural that a man who held a Guinness Record for top spinning is now the curator of a toy museum. Ohga-san held a record of one hour, eight minutes, and fifty-seven seconds from one pull by one man. The top he spun for the record was bright red with an inset thick black circle, more red, and then a black bullseye right in the middle. And in the middle was a long, red spine to wind the rope, which resembled an arrow that had hit the mark.  The top was a whopping 2.5 meters in diameter and made of wood. His record held for a few years until a Japanese steel company created a steel top 2.6 meters in diameter that spun for one hour and twenty-three minutes from a one-man pull.

The Top
The top Ohga san spun for the record!

I asked Ohga-san, “Would you like to recapture the record?”

He smiled, “That big of top would be too much of a pull for an old man.”

“Maybe so,” I agreed and then inquired, “So, Why a toy museum Ohga-san?”

He thought for a moment and gazed around at all the toys. He looked me in the eyes and responded in almost a whisper, “The answer is simple. To help us remember”.

Ohga-san’s father began the Kurashiki Rural Toy Museum in 1967, after a failed attempt at a hardware business. The Ohga family soon discovered many difficulties in running  such a store on a narrow, ancient street next to a river. It was extremely difficult to maneuver their big trucks in and out of the Bikan for loading and unloading. The Bikan was made for rice storage, which was unloaded from boats on the river and carried to the storehouses. Ohga-san’s father decided it was time for a change and at the same time he also noticed a change in Japan’s toys.

In the late 1960s, popular handcrafted Japanese paper kites found a new competitor: the American Delta Wing Kite. The Delta Wing was easier to fly and cheaper to produce and purchase than the traditional Japanese kite. Kids all over Japan were flying the new American kites. Kurashiki was no exception. Soon after the American kite invasion, battery operated toys of all kinds flooded the Japanese market. As extinction descended upon the traditional Japanese toy maker, their toys were lying unwanted in the average Japanese home and were destined to take up residence on Rankin and Basses’ mythical Island of Lost Toys.

Ohga family to the rescue! They decided to sell traditional toys amid a myriad of displays featuring antique traditional toys so that, according to Ohga-san, the Japanese people could not only view the old toys, but also buy them to purchase “a piece of a time long ago.” According to Ohga-san, “Everyone can see and enjoy their traditional past.” After viewing traditional toys in the museum, a visitor can walk right into the toy shop and buy traditional toys similar to those in the museum. Some of the toys in the museum are 200 to 300 years old. The toys in Ohga-san’s shop support the traditional toy maker so their craft of creating paper mache tigers, wooden spinning tops, dolls, and dharma is not forgotten.

He thought for a moment and gazed around at all the toys. He looked me in the eyes and responded in almost a whisper, “The answer is simple. To help us remember”.

My tour of the museum began in one of the six musty, crowded rooms full of traditional Japanese toys and toys from around the world, including Asia, Australia, Europe, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States. The display from the States included dolls made of corn husks and the very popular Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. In this first room, a rice paper map of Japan that dated back to 1835 hung on a near wall. This map of Japan was a guide to the room. As we walked around, we began our journey of Japanese toys in the northern island of Hokkaido.  Traditional northern toys were made of wood and according to Ohga-san the reason is simple: “Sometimes it is very cold in the north so the men had more time to sit inside and carve toys out of wood.” Next we viewed hundreds of red, eyeless heads with painted black wispy eyebrows and mustaches. These eyeless heads are called dharma and they come in various sizes and materials. A dharma is for good luck. When you receive or purchase a dharma, you make a wish and write it on the bottom of the figure. After you write your wish, you must color in one of the eyes. A dharma with one eye is a wish in progress. When your wish is fulfilled, fill in the other eye.

In the midst of all these toys, there is an impressive display of Japanese postcard stamps for mailing New Years greetings dating as far back as 1954 and into the present. These New Year postcards are sent to family and friends to celebrate the beginning of the New Year. In 1954, it cost five yen to mail a postcard. Over the years the price has increased, as most things do.  Beginning in the eighties, with the forty-yen postcard stamp, an extra yen would attach a special number to the stamp. So, for forty-one yen you kept part of the stamp and it was, in reality, a lottery number! At pre-announced dates, the winning numbers would be made public and many happy people collected their winnings. The tradition of the New Year postcard continues today, but the lottery number is now printed on the actual postcard. So, when you send that special greeting you are giving your friend or loved one a chance to win a lottery prize from money to merchandise.

“Did you ever win?” I asked as I examined the postcards.

“No, no never. Maybe someday I will be lucky,” Ohga-san answered with a big laugh and almost toothless smile.

      We continued our exploration of toys by viewing bells, whistles in the shape of birds, and many more dharma. Next, a room full of masks. There were hundreds of masks lining the walls, stacked on the floor, and hanging from the ceiling made from wood and paper mache. Ohga-san explained that paper mache masks were for children and adults wore the wooden masks. Many of the masks were for the setsubun holiday to usher in spring and scare away the devil (Oni) and other evil spirits. Casting aside evil spirits was as easy as opening a window or door while wearing a mask, throwing beans, and shouting “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” (Out with the bad luck and in with good).

With that Ohga-san carefully adjusted a paper mache lion with the care of an overprotective father. And the look on his face did not convince me that he was not sad.

I hesitated a bit to ask the next question that formed in my mind. “Are you sad, Ohga-san,  that the toys in your shop and the museum might be a lost tradition?”

“Most of these toys are not sold anymore. Most kids go for the new, battery operated or digital toys,” Ohga-san said with a look of sad concern. “For the Japanese,” he continued “ most of the traditional toys are based on the seasons. New Year’s toys, Doll Festival dolls, Children’s Day, 3-5-7 Day, Summer Festival, and the Cherry Blossoms…always something to celebrate with a toy…the change of seasons. A wonderful thing. The schools are teaching about the toys…how to make and play with them. They come here and buy the toys for this purpose.” He looked around his shop and added, “But the students do not go out and spend their own money on the traditional toys.”

“Does that make you sad?” I repeated.

“Not sad, hopeful. Now, at last, the Japanese people are beginning to reflect on and examine their past, so it is going in a good direction. A direction of remembrance of childhood days of long ago.” With that Ohga-san carefully adjusted a paper mache lion with the care of an overprotective father. And the look on his face did not convince me that he was not sad.

I said sayonara to Ohga-san and his toy museum and walked back out into the Bikan. I shuffled over the oldest bridge in Kurashiki and sat, a solitary figure, on old cement steps that descended to the river near the bridge. Ohga-san transported me back to a simpler time. I thought of my own childhood and the many toys from that era that I know are sitting, dusty and unused in my father’s basement. GI Joe dolls, Evel Knievel motorcycles, and Star Wars toys. As I sat, I thought of my own past and that basement full of abandon afternoons, just waiting for that golden ticket to the Island of Lost Toys. Jiro-san’s version of Goodman’s “Memories of You” danced in my head. I thought of Ohga-san’s toys, my childhood and a time of innocence long gone. As I stared out at the Kurashiki river from the old steps, a sadness descended upon my soul.

Author’s note: To my knowledge, the Kurashiki Rural Toy Museum is still operating in the Bikan District of Kurashiki, although I do not know if Ohga-san is still the museum’s curator. I hope he is!  I have read that there have been some updates and minor renovations to many of the shops, as well as the addition of some very nice places to have lunch. I hope to revisit the Bikan again during my current stay in Japan.  If I do, I will certainly write about the experience! 

© 2019 Gregory Vessar

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Categories: Japan, Travel, WritingTags: , , ,

5 comments

  1. Awesome story. I look through those old toys from time to time. They are not lost or forgotten and will be here when you are able to visit them again. Our innocence may be lost but can easily be found in those dusty boxes.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Looks like the stay with that friend was fruitful! I have never read this, though you talked about it a fair bit around the time. You took a bunch of photos too didn’t you? Have you still got them?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Yeah, I probably know that friend better than some! 😉
    Another fine memory bro – many more to come I’m sure.

    Liked by 1 person

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