Otaka poppo: Ancient Japanese carving is amazing

At a friend’s house recently, shooting promo photos for a tool that he distributes, I ran across this carved hawk, called otaka poppo, part of an ancient craft from the Yamagata prefecture in Japan. Like lots of woodworkers, my friend is curious about just about everything. He flies planes, fishes for salmon, and rides his bike on weeklong trips. As the traveled the world on business, he collected handcrafts wherever he went, and these amazing carvings are just treasure he brought back.

One of the many things I love about Japanese culture is how far back the handwork traditions go, from sushi to woodworking blades to temple-building, and how alive they still are today, in their original form.

Otaka poppo means hawk toy. A quick web search revealed that the lord of the town of Yonezawa had these made by local farmers when they were stuck indoors during the winter, and they soon became a source of income. Today these figures are the most popular souvenir of the region.

The same technique used to make the hawk is also used to make chickens and other figurines, as seen here. Each one is amazingly carved with a single blade from a single branch of wood. The beautiful Japanese burst characters give the name of the craftsman and the amount of experience he or she has. Experience is respected.

What I love about this craft is the obvious skill and precision that only comes from hundreds of hours of practice. It reminds me of the figures I saw people in West Africa carve, when I was in the Peace Corps. They worked on the ground, using rudimentary tools with amazing skill.

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