Designated as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Sanshu Onigawara (decorative ridge-end tiles resembling gargoyles) are named after the Sanshu area in central Aichi Prefecture, home to Nagoya, a major city located between Tokyo and Osaka. The most well-known characteristics of the pottery from this region are its deep and lovely “ibushi-gin” silver coloring and durability, which are the result of carbon coating from the pieces being smoked without having any yuyaku glaze applied to them. Sanshu Onigawara roof tiles were once used to ward off evil, but nowadays they are far less common, and the craft has instead been more popular as interior decorations.
The History of Sanshu Onigawara
Clay roof tiles on traditional Japanese homes can be thought of as a representation of Japanese culture. These roofs can be decorated by “onigawara” (literally “demon tiles”) as a means to protect the house from evil. Among them, the “Sanshu Onigawara” is a traditional craft that is said to have a long history that originated in the 1700s.
“Sanshu” refers to the West Mikawa region in the central part of Aichi Prefecture, which is also home to the major city of Nagoya. (The “mi” in Mikawa is also pronounced “san,” hence “Sanshu” = “San State.”) It is believed that the production of tiles thrived in this area thanks to the Yahagi River (image below). This river carries downstream the best-quality clay for tile production, so artisans were able to obtain quality materials. In addition, it made marine transport to the city of Edo (currently Tokyo) easy, so from 1720 onwards, tile production developed further and became a local industry.
Onigawara gradually became a part of everyday life as a good luck charm, and they soon became a decorative charm for alcoves or entrances in traditional Japanese homes. Onigawara are not only seen in castles and public facilities, but also in places that are designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. Its production technique has a history of more than 300 years and has been praised both domestically and internationally. Sanshu Onigawara tiles were designated as a traditional Japanese craft in November 2017.
The Characteristics of Sanshu Onigawara
Onigawara are ceramics, and Mikawa clay remains one of the main materials today. The cities of Takahama, Hekinan, and Anjo are some of the main production areas.
The tiles are baked without applying glaze, which is often used in the production of tableware. What is unique about the production is that a process known as “ibusu” (covering in smoke, similar to smoking meats) takes place during the baking. This covers the completed onigawara in carbon, giving it a deep, beautiful color referred to as “ibushi-gin” (oxidized silver) and a high durability that can withstand outdoor conditions.
The artisans who make these tiles are called “onishi” or “oni-itashi”, and their handwork truly comes to life in these tiles, which is what makes them special. Various tools such as paper patterns and plaster molds are used effectively to make fine adjustments to the molding. As the tiles are three-dimensional rather than flat, they require delicate techniques. The detail is what leaves people in awe.
As “oni” means “demon,” you might imagine demons to feature prominently on these tiles, but this is not necessarily the case. The tiles often depict something that symbolizes good luck, such as Kikusui (a design that features a chrysanthemum floating in a stream of water), Ebisu (an ancient Japanese god, one of the Seven Lucky Gods), and a crane and turtle (symbols for good luck and longevity, as it has been said since ancient times that “cranes live for 1000 years, turtles live for 10,000 years”). Other designs that are popular include a shishi lion (an imaginary creature based on a lion), a shachihoko (an imaginary creature with a dragon or tiger head, a fish body, and sharp thorns on its back), family crests, and other motifs that suit the region.
Sanshu Onigawara Today
Even in the present day, when the number of houses with tiled roofs has declined, Sanshu Onigawara is still widespread in a variety of different forms. There are decorative mini-onigawara that work both indoors and outdoors, as well as interior decorations like figurines and wall hangings. You can also find unique onigawara products that fit into our lives today, such as chopstick rests and bolo ties.
Some of these decorative items can also be made to order, so if you’re visiting nearby, it is recommended that you get a souvenir or gift created! You can make your own one-of-a-kind souvenir, such as by engraving your name on the item. This will surely be a memorable experience!
There are many events that honor the importance of this tradition, for example those that restore the country’s designated Important Cultural Properties or National Treasures. Various events are held to bring attention to the industry, including competitions, exhibitions, and volunteer events by young “onishi”. In Takahama City in Aichi Prefecture, the city’s tourism association holds an event called the Oni Michi Festival*.
Oni Michi consists of a square where there are buildings and monuments made of onigawara, and a street where you can fully enjoy the Sanshu Onigawara on buildings such as the Kawara Museum. The street spans approximately 5 km, and has been selected as one of the “100 New Japan Walking Trips” and “500 Beautiful Japanese Walks”. If you want to see the onigawara tiles for yourself and enjoy their charm, why not make a visit to this street? Onigawara is a deeply interesting craft that has been around for a long time as a good luck charm. When viewing temples and historic buildings, look carefully and you might spot an onigawara!
*Festival was canceled in 2020 due to the coronavirus.
Tissue Case (Onigawara With A Glaring Face)
This unique and amusing Onigawara tissue case features a glaring face that is actually a bringer of good luck, and is said to ward off evil, ghosts, and other terrible things. This tissue case only takes on a finer texture and appearance the more you use it, and would not look out of place in a store. In fact, it’s sure to make quite a statement!
Size: 10.31" x 5.11" x 5.11" (26.2 cm x 13.0 cm x 13.0 cm) (*Can only fit a 24.8 cm x 11.7 cm x 6.0 cm tissue box inside)
Weight: 3.53 lbs (1,600 g)
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*These products may not be able to be shipped to certain countries. Please see the retailer's website for more information.
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.