Mushrooms and other fungus are common subjects for netsuke. The mushrooms are typically shown as groupings of full mushrooms, as if they were growing in a field. The mushroom shown here is a symbol of maleness, much as the peach is a vegetative representation of femaleness. The Japanese mountain priests known as yamabushi, like the American Indians, were aware of the potency of specific varieties of mushrooms.

Japan is home to a diverse range of edible mushrooms. The mushroom stems have been cut from this netsuke, and the caps have been heaped together for easy transport. Perhaps they were left sitting there for too long since some insects have eaten holes in them, and one of them now has a spider on it!

Mushrooms and other fungus are common subjects for netsuke

In Western art traditions, professional painters and sculptors have traditionally hired assistants or apprentices to help with the many steps of bringing a work of art from raw materials to completion. This is similar to the old Japanese apprentice system, in which first-year students perform only the most basic tasks for many years. Progress in refining occurs only when their skills deserve it. However, there is an Eastern tradition that is uncommon in the West: two or more masters collaborate to create a single work of art.

Mushrooms and other fungus are common subjects for netsuke
Netsuke Kannon, the Japanese version of the Goddess of Mercy

There are numerous examples of master painters celebrating a particularly enjoyable celebration by working together on a single piece. One may do rocks, another orchids, another bamboo, and so on. Many netsuke that blend materials, like this one, were created through cooperation between two artists. Ganbun, a mid-Meiji-era netsuke craftsman, was talented in both wood carving and metalwork. The metal spider is constructed of a silver, copper alloy known as shibuichi, which is a muted grayish silver when new. It eventually tarnishes to jet black. Ganbun frequently utilized this material to create ants, which he subsequently used to depict various natural subjects.

Kannon, the Japanese version of the Goddess of Mercy, is among her most lovely incarnations. Before landing in Japan, she had been to many different countries and experienced many customs. Centuries before Buddha’s birth, Arabian camel drivers carried images of “the god who harkens.” At that time, it was a man deity. He was adopted by followers in Ceylon and India, where he went by the name Avalokiteshvara.
When the Chinese accepted his religion, they chose a name that means “Regarder of the Cries of the World.”

Even though the figure was initially male, when the Chinese and Japanese embraced it, they transformed it into the Goddess of Mercy, known as Kuan-yin in China and Kannon in Japan. She is the goddess of limitless compassion, manifesting herself in a variety of ways. She is sometimes pictured holding a carp, and she is also depicted sitting on a rock by a waterfall. A familiar porcelain figurine depicts her holding a solitary lotus blossom. She is frequently represented clutching a scroll with prayers for assistance from her followers, as seen in this netsuke.

In one portrayal, she is depicted as having “a thousand hands.” The artwork shows her compassionate desire to reach out and assist all people. In this form, she is typically depicted with several arms surrounding her as if emanating from her shoulder blades. Each arm is represented by a hand clutching a Buddhist emblem. In Kyoto, the Sanjusangen-do temple houses thirty-three thousand images of this Kannon. There are 1,000 gilded statues, each five feet tall. They are placed in levels in a single room that is more than 100 yards long. These one thousand figurines flank a great golden statue of Kannon seated. The thirty-three thousand images depict Kannon with halos, headdresses, and in the hands of larger figures.

Netsuke In one portrayal, she is depicted as having
Meido, an excellent ivory carving who specialized in netsuke and okimono

The temple, built in 1132, was destroyed by fire. It has been rebuilt, and visitors may now see the thirty-three thousand Kannons that were repaired in 1266. The temple also hosts an annual kyudo (Japanese archery) competition, which began in 1606. Meido, an excellent ivory carving who specialized in netsuke and okimono, was invited by the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce to display some of his work at the Great Columbian Exposition in the United States in 1893.

An oni is a small demon that is so smart that it is constantly playing tricks on people, and even Shoki, the demon catcher, has become ensnared. Was he apprehended by a species far more intelligent than himself? No! His tail is caught inside a clam shell. This tiny picture serves as a reminder that each culture has its own way of urging us not to get caught up in our own daily affairs.

Some Japanese folktales are told in the style of contemporary horror stories. Or possibly Stephen King and other authors are delivering stories in a traditional Japanese manner. Here’s an example of a nasty demon that did not escape. There was once a fearsome female demon, or ogress, who disguised herself and paid regular visits to Fukazawa village. She became friends with one family, and they began to utilize her as a babysitter. After a long stint as a model babysitter, she ate the infant and vanished!

The villagers were shocked and outraged! They all pledged to exact revenge on her for her heinous act. When the ogress returned to the village, the locals encouraged her to try some delicious-looking dumplings. She ate them with delight. The villager’s secret was that each dumpling had a red-hot stone in its core. The ogress began to moan about her stomach pain. When she could no longer bear the ache, she requested some water. The locals put boiling oil into her mouth instead of water. Wracked with agony, she dashed to the river to gulp some of the cool water. The huge stones in her stomach weighed her down, and she drowned.

The villagers were relieved to be rid of her, but they were still frightened she would curse them from her watery grave, so they built a modest shrine alongside the river, which still stands. Gyokuzan (1843-1923) was ordained as a Buddhist priest, but from the age of 24, he dedicated himself entirely to carving. He was well-known for his okimono featuring frogs, snakes, crabs, monkeys, and other creatures. His netsuke were very popular. The most significant of his many honors was the Prix d’honneur (for a netsuke representing a skull), which was awarded to him by HIH Prince Yoshihisa of Kitashirakawa in front of Emperor Meiji.