Kote-e the Art of Plaster Relief

Kote-e , the Art of Plaster Relief in Oita こて絵

Jake Davies

In the Edo Period (1603-1868), and in the city of Edo (Tokyo) itself, a new art form emerged that eventually spread across the country and is still practiced today called kote-e.

A "kote" is a type of narrow, spatula-like trowel used by plasterers, and "e" means picture of painting, so a literal translation of kote-e would be "trowel picture", but the best translation would be "plaster relief art" and refers to the colored reliefs found most commonly on storehouses, though also found on homes and temples.

Kote-e on a door of a sake brewery storehouse in Katsuyama, Okayama, Japan.
Kote-e on a door of a sake brewery storehouse in Katsuyama, Okayama

Plaster was introduced to Japan along with Buddhism and temple architecture, probably in the late 6th century from China. It was used initially as a base for religious paintings. Called "shikkui" in Japanese, the plaster used nowadays, though having some regional variations, is still made with the same ingredients as in ancient times, hydrated lime, a glue made from seaweed, and fine hemp fibres.

Making plaster was an expensive and time consuming activity, but gradually its use spread and it was used to cover exterior earthen walls to protect them against the weather. At some point early in the Edo Period plasterers began sculpting in decorations into the surface of the plaster, usually up in the eaves. The designs were not purely decorative, they had a purpose.

Kote-e plaster work, Japan.
A fully three-dimensional dragon rising out of a kote-e on the treasure house of a temple in Iwami Ginzan. The kote-e on this building were done by local plasterer Eikichi Matsuura who is unusual for the fact that he studied English style plaster decoration in Shanghai.

The first design, and one that is still very common nowadays, was probably the kanji, Chinese character, for water (水), and its purpose was to protect the storehouse from fire. Gradually more designs were used and as the “art" of kote-e developed the designs became more complex, but they still all fell within two broad categories; designs that attracted good fortune, for instance wealth, an abundance of children, etc, or designs that warded off misfortune, primarily fire, but also poverty, disease, or any calamity.

In time kote-e began to appear on other buildings than storehouses, with temples having some of the most complex designs. By late in the Edo Period many plasterers had gained a name and reputation as artists, one being a man by the name of Chohachi, originally from a village in Izu who perfected his art in Edo before returning to his native area to spread the craft.

In Matsuzaki, Shizuoka, is the Chohachi Museum, the only museum in Japan devoted to kote-e, and more than 50 examples of his work can be seen here.

Ebisu Kote-e - Ebisu is one of the 7 lucky gods.
Kote-e in Kitsuki, Oita. Ebisu, one of the most popular of the 7 Lucky Gods is a common motif in Kote-e.
Naneki neko Kote-e, Ajimu, Oita.
Kote-e in Ajimu, Oita. Maneki neko, the welcoming cat, a symbol of good luck.

Kote-e is still practiced today, though not widely, and examples of historical kote-e can be found all over Japan, but there are some areas that have become known for the quantity and quality of examples, northern Oita in Kyushu being one such area, where three towns, Kitsuki, Hiji and Ajimu are all places where kote-e are showcased and can be seen.

The castle town of Kitsuki is a popular tourist attraction known mainly for its castle and associated samurai district. The main street of the town has many examples of white plastered Edo Period storehouses that now house restaurants and fashionable boutiques as well as gift and souvenir shops.

Numerous colorful kote-e can be found on the buildings. A tourist map available from tourist information offices in the town have them marked as well as tourist signboards around the town.

Hiji is a small port town on the JR Kyushu Nippo Line about halfway between Kitsuki and Beppu. The town is home to a small castle ruin and a garden by Sesshu. The kote-e here are attributed to a father and son team. The father, Aoyagi Koichi, studied in Edo under Irie Nagahachi, an acknowledged master of kote-e. The tourist information office next to Hiji Station can give directions to the kote-e in the town.

Ajimu is the most difficult of the three towns to visit as there is no train line. It is a small rural town in the south of Usa city. There are local buses, but car is the best way to visit, however, if you are limited to public transport then copies of some of the Ajimu kote-e can be seen at the Oita Prefectural History Museum located a little north of Usa Hachimangu.

In the town itself there are road signs that point to the kote-e, or you can pick up a guidebook and or a guide by contacting the Ajimu Victor Center. The Tourist Information Office at Usa Station will also be able to help.

Kote-e dragon design in Kitsuki.
An unusual kote-e dragon design in Kitsuki. Dragons have many associations in Japan, one of which is as protection against fire
Daikoku Kote-e in Kitsuki, Oita.
Kote-e in Kitsuki, Oita. One of the 7 Lucky Gods, Shichifukujin, of Japan, Daikoku is strongly associated with wealth

Where to see kote-e in Japan

Chohachi Museum

23 Matsuzaki, Matsuzaki-cho, Kamo-gun, Shizuoka 410-3611
Tel: 0558 42 2540
Open 9am to 5pm all year round. Entrance 500 yen for adults, kids free.

Kitsuki, Oita

Accessible from Kitsuki Station on the JR Kyushu Nippo Line. The town is a few miles from the station and buses and taxis provide access.

Hiji

Accessible via Hiji Station on the Nippo Line, about halfway between Kitsuki and Beppu.
Tel: 0977 73 3158

Ajimu

Accessible by infrequent bus or by taxi from Usa Station on the main Nippo Line.

The Tourist Information Office at the station can help or contact the Ajimu office directly on Tel: 0978 344 839.

Kote-e, Shimane, Japan.
New house under construction in the countryside of Shimane. Unusual incorporation of kote-e over much of the exterior structure

Images by Jake Davies


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