Nowadays kids seem to prefer video games, but some of them still enjoy old school activities, like kite-flying or top-spinning, during the New Year’s holiday. As the name implies, the Hakata koma (top) was born in Hakata, but it soon grew popular nationwide due to its excellent stability, and ended up having an impact on traditional tops in other regions. The most unique aspect of the Hakata koma is the iron core, which ensures a strong rotational force and longer spin time, thus making it a popular choice among children for top-spinning battles.
Tops first came to Japan via China about 1,300 years ago. They were initially made out of bamboo and made a buzzing sound when spun. Ancient documents reveal that wooden tops started appearing in Hakata around the end of the Muromachi Period (late 14th century). The Hakata koma as we know it was born in the late 17th century, in the Edo Period, after iron cores were inserted into the wooden tops. These cores provided greater stability, to the point that you could move spinning tops from hand to hand, and this gave rise to acrobatic top-spinning performances.
Naturally, these top-spinning performances originated in Kyushu, but soon made their way to Kyoto and Osaka. One top-spinner who displayed his skill from a young age was Ichitaro, and records indicate that he even performed for the emperor in the year 1701. Ichitaro went on to spend several years walking around the country giving performances, and he is a big reason why Hakata koma and acrobatic top-spinning spread throughout Japan.
The art of spinning Hakata koma has been designated as an intangible cultural asset by Fukuoka Prefecture, and the tops themselves have been designated by the Governor of Fukuoka Prefecture as a traditional handicraft. Every Wednesday, the general public can watch craftsmen create Hakata koma at Hakatamachiya Furusatokan and purchase the lively, colorful tops, which make great gifts for children – even if they are not top-spinning prodigies like Ichitaro.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn204, Dec. 2015)