さんち 〜工芸と探訪〜

SUNCHI ~ Explore japan through regional crafts ~

Follow us on:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram

Carving tender faces in a time of recession Yuji Takahashi, a master of Itto-Bori, one-knife carving,

Published : November 1, 2016
Production area : Tenri, Uda, Sakurai
  • LINE

Hi, this is Kanako from SUNCHI editorial desk.
Recently local traditional toys such as Kokeshi dolls are becoming increasingly popular among young people in Japan. These dolls were originally made as objects of faith. Some of the dolls were used for festivals at shrines and later became a typical souvenir for those who visited the region.

In Nara, you can find traditional Kokeshi dolls that are called Nara dolls which are handcrafted in a style unique to this city. While in Nara, I visited the workshop of master craftsman Yuji Takahashi, whose workshop and gallery is located next to Hasedera Temple. Mr Takahashi specialises in a technique known as “Itto-Bori” or One-knife carving, and is now renowned for one of the traditions of Nara’s regional crafts.

With their amazing attention to detail, we can almost hear the rustle from the kimonos of these carved dolls.

Ittobori, carved boldly from a material was originally called “Nara Ningyo” and they said it derives from the doll for sacred ritual “Wakamiya Onmaturi” at Kasuga Taisha Shrine which is a representative shrine in Nara. Nara Ningyo seems prevailed among ordinary people as a local specialty because of its quality and popular motifs.
As it has been dedicated for Onmatsuri festival along with Noh and Kyogen play, its theme mostly comes from those plays. Its appearance expressing a moment of dancer’s move is so living and the crease, gather, and texture of its cloth look almost real as if we could hear froufrou.



As if we could feel player’s breath and tension.

A story of a wannabe Noh mask carver boy from Akita Prefecture becoming Ittobori carver in Nara

“Ittobori is a carving of polyhedral form. Some reason that the themes are picked up from Noh play is, I assume, Ittobori matches the stiffly texture of its costume. Also Noh has numerous programs, so theme is abundant.” said Ittobori carver Mr. Yuji Takahashi.
He’s from Akita Prefecture, northern part of Japan. He was motivated by a thought of making Noh mask at the age of 20, and jumped into Kansai District by himself. The place where he became an apprentice with was making Ittobori and that was the doorway into Ittobori for him. His training started from whetting a chisel and what he made first was small Hina Doll for girl’s festival about 3cm in size. Usually, it will be sold just a piece out of 100. He kept making it until 100 pieces were sold out of 100. Then he was allowed to go to the next step. After three and half years, he realized that he wouldn’t be able to be much skilled as far as just making what was asked for by wholesalers. Then he was determined to be independent. He learned drawing for four years at the art laboratory in Osaka and it was there he met his future wife, Miss. Nobuko.


Craft made by a couple

At his workshop, carving is made by Mr. Takahashi and the other craftspeople and coloring is made by four craftspeople. The person in charge of coloring is Mrs. Takahashi.
“Not only Ittobori, most of craft are made by the division of work. You know that Hina Doll has the artist’s name on a wooden strip, but actually that’s the name in charge of minute process of work.
Firstly, Mr. Takakashi sketches and makes a clay model while referring to fine works in the past for the pose, cloth’s pattern, and coloration. And then Mr. & Mrs. Takahashi kick around ideas how to finish the work.

“The decisive difference between Ittobori and the other carving is its vivid colors. When a drawing becomes tridimensional, the volume will be trebled and the impression will be different. If it’s a big piece, we will make just the only one. We discuss it thoroughly until we come to an agreement.”

They told us with a laugh. Then Mr. Takahashi added softly that thanks to his wife for giving him another view, he can be objective.

Ittobori, actually it’s not made by itto, one knife

Once they reach to an agreement, it’s time for carving. First, they cut a material into a roughly big piece by the electric chain saw and after that all the process will be made by hand. They use right knives for the shape they’d like to carve it into. There were many Cock figures of lucky charm for the next year on Chinese Zodiac Signs await to be shipped.


Cock figures before painting. By the time of this shape, various knives were used.


Just after being cut into big planar pieces by electric saw.


Chisel cuts clean through planar piece.


Changing a knife.



The most left one is called “Genno”. Handle is hand-made.

Mr. Takahashi says each tool should be used in the right place. He picked up a knife to another depending on a process. We’ve learned that Ittobori means single knife, though, its bold and powerful marks were made by various knives picked up correctly. He showed us the best way of gripping knives acquired after his years’ study. His little finger had a big callous out of it.



Gone through various knives and techniques, it’s nearly completed.

The face changes in 12 years? The secret of Eto decoration.

Carved Cocks will be bleached once for the colors showing up. They showed us the work room for coloring behind the spacious Japanese gallery room. An apprentice who once aimed to be a Japanese style painter was in the midst of painting.



Putting the same color one by one partially.


The finished sample.

As we talked along, he showed us a cock decoration of 12 years ago, saying that “The face changes depending on the times.”


The left is a cock for 2005, the right is for 2017.

“When the world is energetic, the vivid color tends to be popular. In a recession, the face will be made affectionately with no attempt.

Compared to the work 12 yeas ago, obviously the cock for the next year has bigger eyes and rich round shape. We could tell the way of carving and coloring are slightly different, being updated to the current atmosphere.

Their workshop is located in quiet mountains. We just wanted to take a deep breath. Ittobori is being made in such a secluded place and developing steadily complying with what the times require.


A landscape from a hill in front of their gallery.

Being exhibited for a long time, they return to us in a weary face. There is “freshness” to works.

Like the owner of a fresh seafood restaurant, the wood master told us with a grin in such a secluded place, with no coastline.

Mr. Yuji Takahashi’s gallery.
Address: 779-12 Oaza Iwasaka, Sakurai City, Nara Prefecture
Phone: 0744-47-8764


Pulling in the car and climb up the slope the gallery.


The beautifully trimmed path to the gallery.


It’s just right called for hermitage. Everywhere is pretty decoration.

Writer: Kanako Ojima
Photographer: Masashi Kimura

  • LINE

Follow us

Discover the regional crafts and production areas of Japan with new articles added daily.

We are on social media! Follow our accounts to get the latest information hot off the press.