The New Year’s holiday is over, but New Year’s under the old calendar falls on February 3. The old New Year’s Day is still celebrated as New Year’s in many countries and territories in Asia, including China and South Korea.
In Japan, traditional New Year’s games for children included kite flying, hanetsuki (a Japanese version of badminton), and top spinning. Few children are interested in amusements of this sort any more. Tops were introduced to Japan about 1,300 years ago during the Nara period through the Korean Peninsula from China. They were made of bamboo and called togoma, or Tang tops. In the latter part of the 17th century, the first of the tops in their current form were made in Hakata. A metal pin was inserted into a piece of wood and these were spun. Top spinning in those days involved a competition in which the object was to knock over the other person’s top with one’s own, and it became popular throughout the country. The Hakata top, however, developed on its own for use as a type of entertainment. It is very stable and spins well, so it can be moved with the hand. As a result, entertainers perfected the art of spinning them perched on the tips of swords and fans.
In addition to being a traditional craft object, today’s Hakata tops are also used for a traditional performing art that has been designated an intangible cultural treasure of the prefecture. Entertainers would travel as far as Kyoto to perform, and are reported to have been very popular. The art of the Hakata top began to die out from the middle of the 19th century, however. The Chikushi Shuraku line of Hakata top masters was later revived, and the techniques of top making and spinning were taught to the second modern holder of the traditional name, a woman who lives in Chikushino.
Tops finished with lacquer are made with wood from a camellia tree that is from 50 to 100 years old and then allowed to dry for about five years. Even if a master were to make 100 tops from a piece of wood for entertainment purposes, only two or three can actually be used.
There are few opportunities to see Hakata tops these days, but one can watch them being made every Wednesday at the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum near the Kushida Shrine in Reisen-machi, Hakata Ward. Visitors can also buy some as gifts or souvenirs at the shop.Hakata Machiya Folk Museum, Tel: 092-281-7761
Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn146, Feb. 2011)