I bought my first set of Boys Day decorations when I was in fourth grade.
For those of you old enough and familiar enough with Sacramento to remember back before Highway 80 cut through town and wiped out a large part of Japantown, there was a wonderful store on P Street called Yorozu, run by the Okada brothers. I remember getting on the bus to take the long ride into town by myself, with my jeans pocket full of what seemed to me to be a small fortune in money earned from mowing lawns. I still remember the intoxicating sandalwood-like smell of the store and the exotic treasures on display. Eugene Okada was very patient with me, letting me look at everything and pose questions whenever I could find the gumption.
I went home with my first set of miniature nobori and a shiny suit of armor with a prancing dragon on the helmet. The center banner had a wonderful image of a scowling character, with wild hair and bushy eyebrows. His name is Shoki (鍾馗様) and he is patron saint of students and civil servants.
Since then I have enjoyed collecting other images and dolls representing Shoki. It seems that Shoki was a very good student and studied hard to become a physician in ancient China. The most common story has it that he passed his exams in flying colors but was considered too ugly to work in the court and committed suicide in disgrace. I heard a slightly different story as a child, and it is still the one I prefer.
Shoki came from a very poor but honest household. China was the first civilization to have civil-service exams for its citizens, and Shoki worked diligently to earn his spot. The night before the exams were to take place some roving oni (鬼 small demons) came upon him slumped over his desk, exhausted from his studies. They decided to pull a prank on him and set about disfiguring him horribly. When he showed up to take the exams he was barred from the hall by the indignant officials, ending all chances of becoming the physician he longed to be. Not long after that Shoki died in sadness and defeat, but he vowed to take his revenge on the oni in the next life. It is for this reason he is called the Demon Killer and is almost always shown with a scholar’s cap and an eye out for the mischievous oni. Shoki has become the protector of students who diligently apply themselves to their lessons, as well as civil servants. I like to give him as a gift to friends battling cancer or other challenges to help in fighting their demons as they confront them.
For this week’s Treasure from John’s Collection, I have chosen two of my favorite Shoki noboribata. The first, shown above and right has a very regal, no-nonsense sort of look to him, bent on his mission to systematically rid
the cosmos of this plague. And the second, to the left, somehow seems a bit less high-brow, but no less serious. With that face and posture, can’t you almost imagine his saying, “Oh, no you di’n’t!”
While the first image has the oni clearly in view, in the second image we can just imagine by his focus where the oni is located.
Both are dressed in the Japanese-imagined version of how he would have been dressed in ancient times across the sea.
Each banner is designed to be seen from both sides and so are painted to match identically. Both banners have been hand painted with no use of rice paste resist or other aid to the dye process. Natural minerals have been used as the dyes–primarily sumi (墨 lamp black), ai (藍 indigo), gunjou (cobalt 群青), and bengara (iron 弁柄 ). In my dyework I always mix soy milk as a binding agent. This keeps the pigments from crocking (rubbing off), but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.
If we take a close look at the akaoni (赤鬼 red demon) depicted in the first image (see detail below), you’ll notice how the dyes seem to look a bit uneven through wear. This is what crocking will do. Even though the dyes will hold up well to outdoor abuse, it would not be wise to wash them.
By the way, the store Yorozu moved to a new location after closing on P Street. They are now located on Riverside Blvd. at Broadway, an still have many treasures to offer.