With gifting season well underway, we’ve all got one thing on the brain: toys! Today’s double release is a pair of Vintage Editions from Unai no tomo (1891-1924), a series of Meiji era books containing delightfully detailed and wonderfully whimsical woodblock prints of Japanese folk toys: Unai no tomo (sumo wrestlers) and Unai no tomo (horses).
Unai no tomo is the ten-volume brainchild of artist, calligrapher, and collector Seifu Shimizu (1851-1913). The series is an ode to traditional Japanese folk toys in the form of richly rendered woodblock printing. From hobbyhorses to noisemakers, Unai no tomo documented a variety of objects that were not only articles of play but also items deeply rooted in Shinto and traditional Japanese folklore.
Sumo Wrestlers shows two flat wooden figures with moveable limbs play fighting across the page, while Horses depicts two Miharu-koma wooden horses. Traditionally produced in Miharu, Fukushima, Japan, these painted figurines have their origins in Buddhism and are said to be able to carry messages to the gods and may have been charms for protecting children. Shimizu’s signature bold swathes of saturated color in Horses—from Volume 1—contrast with the delicate linework of the woodgrain in Sumo Wrestlers, which appears much later in Volume 7. After Shimizu’s death in 1913, his close friend Nishizawa Tekiho completed the final volumes with a slightly more subtle flair.
Many of the objects represented in Unai no tomo were not just simple playthings but omiyage—souvenirs or sacred gifts often given to children by travelers upon returning from both religious and secular pilgrimages. Early 20th century Brooklyn Museum curator Stewart Culin described these toys and charms as ubiquitous in little gift shops nearby many sacred and tourist sites like the Asakusa Temple or along the Tōkaidō road.
Whether you’re in search of a unique bit of whimsy for a kids’ room refresh or on the hunt for a historical flourish for your home office, Horses and Sumo Wrestlers are great additions to your ever-expanding art collection. Frame them up for a delightful duet in the den. Gift ‘em to a growing family! We can think of countless reasons to relish these vintage musings. ‘Tis the toy season after all!