Book review – Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Doll

NINGYOI received an absolute treat in the post last week; an absolutely beautiful book about the history of Japanese dolls, ningyo.

Japanese ningyo are instantly recognisably by the mysterious and intricate beauty, and you are inevitably drawn to the tiniest details in the face, clothes or item they are holding. They have played a very important part in Japanese history and culture, and still do today. I knew very little about the ningyo themselves, so this book is an absolute treasure trove of information.

‘Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Doll’  is the first comprehensive book on these dolls published in English and focuses on six of the primary categories of dolls:

- Gosho-ningyo: Palace Dolls and Auspicious Wishes

- Hina-ningyo: Dolls for Girl’s Day Festival

- Musha-ningyo: Warrior Dolls for the Boy’s Day Festival

- Isho-ningyo: Fashion Dolls and Popular Culture

- Ningyo in the theatre: Entertaining the Gods and Man

- Ningyo and health: Dolls as Talisman and Tool

As soon as I unboxed this book, I could tell it was a labour of love. With 275 pictures of various ningyo and other familiar Japanese scenes and an immaculate hardback cover, it is a book you can return to again and again knowing you will always read and spot something new. It’s definitely too big to fit on your bookshelf, nestled among (I assume) your Haruki Murakami and manga, but it’s perfect for displaying on the coffee table and showing off to your guests. This is a book that needs to be seen and have pride and place in your reading area, wherever that may be.

That said, this isn’t just a pretty picture book but also a history book (and a very thorough one at that). ‘Ningyo’ explores everything from the nature of materials used to create the dolls, to what they teach us about people from that period, to their spiritual purpose. Japanese doll culture raises three important historical and cultural issues: worship, play and visual appreciation. The earliest ningyo date back to 12000-250BC but most surviving dolls, and the focus of this book, are from the Edo period. As a history graduate and Japanophile, this is the pretty much for the perfect book for me.

The brains behind this book are Alan Scott Pate, a leading expert on Japanese dolls in the US and owner of the Japanese antique firm Akanezumiya in Montana, and Lynton Gardiner, a Manhattan-based photographer specialising in arts and culture material. Alan has an MA in East Asian Studies from Harvard University, curated exhibitions and lectured extensively on Japanese dolls, and Lynton has photographed for big name clients all over the world. So, we know we’re in safe, knowledgeable hands.

Because there’s so much brilliant information in ‘Ningyo’, and I’m still reading through it myself, I thought the best way to review this would be to work briefly through each of the six sections and tell you a little bit about the dolls.


photo (4)

Ningyo, including gosho-ningyo, or ‘palace dolls’, are unusual in the doll world as, rather than being playthings for children, they are set pieces for adults. They depict children pretending to be adults, which is why the dolls in this section of the book really do look ‘child-like’. Gosho-ningyo reflect the Japanese appreciation for childlike innocence. Also, visiting daimyo, samurai warlords, to the imperial court were required to bring gifts as tribute and often gave gosho-ningyo holding particular items to convey a particular message or wish for the recipient; such as health, fertility or success for a son. In later history, they also depicted gods and figures of legends, often appearing in sets. Importantly, gasho-ningyo were received as gifts and kept as talismans.


photo (5)

Literally meaning ‘girl dolls’, hina-ningyo are special dolls made for the Girl’s Festival (hina matsuri) in Japan. The hina matsuri, seen as a day of purification and steeped in talisman and ritual history, is linked with the traditions of the Japanese court; court practices and government restrictions played a role in the development of these dolls. The earliest festivals were effectively a mock court wedding, preparing girls for married life. Dolls were seen to help protect children and newborn babies from disease and evil forces in ages where the infant mortality rate was high. This is why ‘amagatsu’ were placed alongside the hina-ningyo at the hina matsuri as they were believed to carry away the evil spirits from the afterworld afflicting children. Hina dolls were usually depicted in pairs, as male and female.


photo (6)

Where the hina-ningyo are symbols of the hina matsuri, musha-ningyo are symbols of the Boy’s Festival (Gogatsu-no-getsu). These figures typically depicted figures of Japan’s martial past and also served as temporary vessels for their spirits, protecting and purifying the houses that welcomed them. The Gogatsu-no-getsu festival was a celebration of samurai as protectors, as well as boy’s courage and determination. Famous samurai such as Musashibo Benkei, Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Toyotomi Hideyoshi all received the musha-ningyo treatment.


As we’ve already read, ningyo weren’t so much playthings as they were informative. What began in the seventeenth century as wood-carved figures depicting lively costuming and hairstyles of the day evolved into a sophisticated illustration of nearly every topic from kimono fashion to plays on the kabuki stage. These were the isho-ningyo. Clothing was the focus of the earlier Edo period isho-ningyo, and dolls were designed to be eye-catching and beautiful, but by the end of the seventeenth century they had evolved to depict characters from popular stories and legends.

Ningyo in the theatre

Ningyo were not necessarily always stationary, they were also used for entertainment. Mechanical dolls were originally imported from China and the establishment of the establishment of a theatres in Osaka saw the rise of elaborate plays involving large mechanical dolls, which delighted audiences. This form of puppetry was known as ningyo joruri, or bunraku, which was influenced by early Buddhist traditions  of using puppets to help monks communicate with the gods. Bunraku puppet plays often involved the most dramatic and complex stories, and yet they were expertly communicated not through human actors but elaborately constructed puppets.

Ningyo and health

We’ve already read that ningyo were often used to ward off evil and act as vessels of the dead, so it not a big surprise that they also performed duties as health talismans. Ningyo were culturally empowered to absorb or divert disease and the malevolent, thereby purifying the individual.  Red-coloured ningyo, hoso-ningyo, primarily protected children from smallpox and measles as the colour had much symbolic power attached to it. Other examples of ningyo used to aid health include those allowing people to study the human body as early as the sixteenth century, and even mechanical sex dolls.

So, today we’ve learned that ningyo were not merely playthings but symbolic works of art in Japanese culture. I’d go so far as to say that this is the best thing I have received through my Japan blogging journey. A massive thank you to Jo and Tuttle Publishing for giving me a rare opportunity to review such an amazing book. You can expect a few more ningyo-related blog posts from me in the next few weeks, as there are many more things in this book I want to share!

This beautiful book is a must-have for any fan of Japanese culture (I’m looking at all my fellow Japan bloggers)! It really is worth buying and displaying proudly in your home and seeing for yourself, or buying for a Japan-loving friend as a birthday/Christmas present. At $52.94 (£32.11), it’s 200% worth the money! Click here to get yours!



HYPER JAPAN is back for Christmas!

22f58ccc-89d5-453c-bbad-2b41fb4bc2e7It’s back! The HYPER JAPAN Christmas Market is officially returning to London for Christmas this year! You can buy your tickets here.

From Friday 14 to Sunday 16 November, you’ll be able to get all your Japan-themed Christmas shopping done (and indulge yourself!) at the Kensington Olympia’s National Hall.

Bringing together diverse exhibitors, sellers, performers and fans, HYPER JAPAN Christmas Market will show off the best of both traditional and contemporary Japan in the heart of London. Visitors will be able to experience diverse elements of Japan’s culture in a single venue, and HYPER JAPAN Christmas Market particularly focuses on gift ideas and exclusive goods with a Japanese theme to them, timed just right for one’s seasonal shopping.

Whether it’s shopping, food and drink, fashion or entertainment, you can get it all at HYPER JAPAN.

This event is a firm favourite of mine. I was disappointed I couldn’t make the one in July, so doubly looking forward to November!

Tickets on sale tomorrow! Final Fantasy: A New World

New World
A New World: intimate music from FINAL FANTASY returns to London for an up-close and personal Halloween performance, featuring the extraordinary music, characters, and settings of over 25 years of FINAL FANTASY, scored for a variety of chamber ensembles. Limited number VIP tickets for best seats and post-show meet and greet with Arnie Roth and Nobuo Uematsu available!

This most intimate experience of FINAL FANTASY music promises many of the favorites from last February’s London World Premiere concerts and recording as well as the World Premiere of FINAL FANTASY V: Home Sweet Home, plus so much more!

The concert is taking place on Friday 31 October at St. John’s Smith Square. Tickets for the concert only are priced at £25, 45, 50.

Tickets go on sale on Friday 29 August at 10am, so get in quick as they won’t be there long!

I’m posting this from a computer that won’t accept hyperlinks, so please make do with an unprofessional long link to the website for ticket sales:

Double anime review: Accel World and Btooom!

Seeing as I have a few anime reviews to get through, I thought I’d try something different this week. I recently watched Accel World and Btoom! from MVM Entertainment, both series about video games and virtual worlds… so I thought I’d make them fight each other! We’ll go through a couple of key points about each series and give them ratings out of 10, then tally it up to pick a winning show.



Accel World is the brain child of Sunrise Studios (Cowboy Bebop, Code Geass) and Flying Dog (.hack, Sengoku Basara) set in the not-so-far future of 2046. Haruyuki Arita is a young boy who finds himself on the lowest social rungs of his school. Ashamed of his miserable life, he can only cope by indulging in virtual games. But that all changes when Kuroyukihime, the most popular girl in school, introduces him to a mysterious program called Brain Burst and a virtual reality called the Accel World.



Btooom! is also from is also the product of Flying Dog and Madhouse Studios (Cardcaptor Sakura, Metropolis movie) and based around a video game. Ryouta Sakamoto suddenly finds himself stranded on a mysterious island, equipped with a day’s worth of provisions, a bag of bombs, a strange crystal embedded in his left hand and a huge gaping hole in his memory. But it doesn’t take long to figure out what’s going on. Someone is attempting to recreate the ultra-violent Btoom! game in real life, and the island has been filled with an army of other unwilling players, each armed with one of the multiple variants of explosive weapons called BIM. There’s only one way off the island: kill seven other people before they can kill you! Can Ryouta repurpose his game based skills fast enough to survive?


In some ways, these two shows are quite similar in terms of plot as both revolve around teenagers’ obsession with video games and how it affects them in the real world.

Source: wegame

Source: wegame

In Accel World, teenagers wear special necklaces that hook them up to the internet and a virtual world where everyone has their own avatar. Some of them have a special programme called “Brain Burst” installed, which takes things to the next level with a virtual fighting game. The story starts by explaining the concept of the game, such as levelling up and clans, then moves on to virus and hackers. There’s a fair amount of plot and thematic progression, so each episode (26 in total) feels like part of a story and there’s very little filler, giving it a 7/10.



Btooom! has a slightly darker plot as the characters are uprooted from their normal lives and thrown onto an island where they have to kill each other in order to escape. There’s definitely a “Battle Royale”-esque element to it all and no shortage of insane people wanting to kill each other. You can’t escape and recuperate in the safety of the real world here, as you can in Accel World, which makes the whole scenario feel that much more hopeless and dangerous. All in all, a good action anime. For that reason, I’m giving Btooom! 8/10.


To be honest, I didn’t feel either series had exceptionally strong main characters. The main draw for me was the worlds in which they were set but everybody has different tastes.

Source: Gematsu

Source: Gematsu

Accel World has a more intriguing leading male character. Haruyuki is quite possibly the only fat main character I’ve come across in anime, which is quite refreshing. He starts off extremely whiny as you might expect but he does learn to stand up for himself eventually. Plus, his avatar in the online world is a pig, which is super cute.  The leading female character, Kuroyukihime, is your rather stereotypical ‘serious cool pretty girl’ – cut from the same cloth of a lot of other anime girls but certainly not a bad character in herself. The thing I struggled to accept the most about the whole series is actually her OTT confession of love for Haruyuki early on in the series. I appreciate anything can happen in anime but talk about an ‘odd couple’.

I actually preferred the secondary characters in Accel World, namely the other avatars such as Red Rider and Dusk Taker who I found a bit more three dimensional. If you’re not overly fussed about super developed characters but like seeing lots of different avatars fighting, Accel World is your kind of show. I’m going to give it a collective 7/10 for characterisation.



Btooom! really let itself down in terms of characters for me. For a supposed NEET, Ryouta is very good-looking and pretty well built, which made his character itself a bit more unbelievable. That said, he isn’t completely two dimensional in that he’s only ever angry or mopey and goes through a lot of emotions during his time on the island – angry, distressed, terrified, resolute etcetc. Our heroine Himiko, however, is a complete pain in the backside. There has never been a more useless and dim female character in anime. It’s very hard to take her seriously when her breasts (bigger than her head) are bouncing about every two seconds and, better yet, reflecting bombs and defying gravity.

To be fair, Btooom! only has 13 episodes to develop its characters whereas Accel World has 26 but I still felt it was lacking for good leading characters. Again, I preferred the secondary characters like the bumbling businessman Taira and mysterious Nobutaka. The anime is based on a still-running manga and, to its credit, ends mid-series so there is a lot left to be explained about characters in the series. Still, I can’t give it more than a 5/10.


Both series have very lovely animation and great fight scenes – always a plus!

Source: mediacache

Source: mediacache

Accel World’s benefitted from some well-known art directors. Nobutaka Ike worked on the likes of Paprika and Takafumi Nishima on Monster and Steins Gate. I particularly enjoyed the fight scenes, which were very sharp. 8/10.

Source: blogspot

Source: blogspot

I really loved the animation for Btoom! The island looks beautiful, the characters sharp and deaths gory without being over the top. For this, it draws with Accel World and gets a nice 8/10.


Accel World has a fantastic soundtrack, some of my favourite songs being ‘Silvery Wings’ and ‘Blood History’. There’s a big range of orchestral, jazz and guitar music thrown in there. It gets another 8/10 for this.

My favourite song from Btooom! is actually its opening theme, which really ‘gets you pumping’ as they say. I didn’t think the soundtrack was spectacular compared to Accel World, so will give it a 6/10.

And the winner is…

I’d heard good things about Accel World, so was keen to check it out when MVM released it. Overall, I enjoyed it and marathoned the whole series in three nights – a good sign. I’m one of those people who is drawn in by animation and music as much as plot, and for this reason the series wins with a collective 30/40!

Btooom! caught my eye from the beginning because of its plot and cool opening theme. The manga has very positive reviews but I feel the anime didn’t live entirely up to its potential because it only had 13 episodes to work with and had a girl with breasts that defied physics. If you like explosions and action anime, it’s still worth checking out with a healthy Sophie rating of 27/40.

6 Japanese restaurants for £60!


That’s £10 for a meal per restaurant! Sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not!

This year’s London Restaurant Festival, a city wide celebration of eating out, presents “Japanese Journey”. For £60 (plus a £3.30 booking fee), you can visit six of London’s best ramen bars, sushi restaurants and Japanese izakayas in one day. You will enjoy a range of specialist Japanese dishes and Suntory whisky highball drinks (a refreshing blend of whisky, soda and ice – perfect with this food). There is no better nor authentic way to experience the variety of a wonderful nation’s cuisine.

Venues confirmed so far are Tonkotsu, Shoryu Soho, Kurobuta, Sticks ‘n’ Sushi, Kanada-Ya – one more still to be confirmed. The event is sponsored by Suntory Whiskey, which will also be offering special cocktails to accompany the Japanese Journey.

The Japanese journey is running on three different days: Saturday 11 October, Saturday 18 October and Saturday 25 October. So, why not persuade a friend to go with you and sample some of London’s best Japanese delights? £10 per restaurant works out to be a very good deal!

You can also explore the rest of the London Restaurant Festival website to see what other events take your fancy!

We’re going to Japan!

It’s true! The flights and (most of) the hotels are booked. I’ll be heading to Japan with my wonderful uni friend Oana at the end of March next year, so you can expect lots of blog content post-trip next year. In the meantime, I thought I’d turn to the internet for a bit of travel inspiration. We know where we’re going but not exactly what we’re doing, as there are a few places neither of us have been to before. So, here’s a list of the places we’re going to next year. Inspire us!



You can’t go to Japan without going to Tokyo! I’m lucky enough to have been before, so have a good idea of the main places to visit and have also identified a few new things to do:

- The new Final Fantasy cafe

- A cat cafe!

- Odaiba and the giant Gundam!

Also on the list are the Ghibli Museum, Akihabara, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Asakusa and Ueno!



We’re having one day in Sendai, one of the cities I’ve been wanting to go to for years. Of course, that’s just because it’s the hometown of one of my favourite samurai – Date Masamune. On the list for this one is to try gyutan, the local ‘beef tongue’ speciality, Aoba Castle and catching the Date re-enactment troupe if we’re lucky. We don’t really know what to expect here, so pop your suggestions below!



I’ve been told Kyoto doesn’t have much of a night life, so most of our activities will be done during the day here. Temples, restaurants and shopping are on the list here. We’re staying in a ryokan with a cat and a dog here right next to the Fushimi Inari shrine! We’ll also be having a day trip to Nara, home of the deer!



All we know about Osaka is that it’s amazing, exciting and massive. We’re staying near Osaka Castle here, so right in the tourist heartland, and will also be venturing out to the beautiful Minoo Park. Tips for night life much appreciated!



We hope we’ll be getting another taste of traditional Japanese culture here. We’ll be staying in another ryokan here near the Higashiyama Walk, a walking route through the temple town. There’s also a morning market to visit and side-trip to the beautiful Shirakawa-go, another place I’ve always wanted to go to.

So, we’re both saving up to go to Japan next year and are really looking forward to it! We’re both looking around for trip ideas but if you have any off-the-beaten track suggestions, post them below!

Image sources: Japan Guide


And the winner is…


Who is the lucky winner of two tickets to HYPER JAPAN on Sunday 27th July?

*drum roll*




Congratulations, Charlotte! Check your inbox for details of how to claim your prize. Thanks very much to everyone who entered – if I could have given you all tickets, I would have. Also, big thanks to the guys at HYPER JAPAN for providing tickets.

If you’re yet to organise your trip to HYPER JAPAN, here are a couple of very good reasons to persuade you:

I’ve just picked out a few things from the impressive schedule, so have a browse of the website and see what takes your fancy. I’ve always enjoyed HYPER JAPAN and there’s always something different to see/try/eat every time, so you should really get your skates on and book your tickets.

I’d love to go this year but academic duty calls. Come August, I’ll have handed in my diploma so will return properly to the world of blogging.

All that’s left to say is – have fun!

WIN! Two tickets to HYPER JAPAN!


Great news, everyone! It’s competition time again – and this one’s pretty awesome.

This is your chance to win two (adult) tickets to the UK’s greatest celebration of all things Japanese – HYPER JAPAN – on Sunday 27 July.


The rules are simple, just like HYPER JAPAN on Facebook and comment on this blog post below. The competition closes on Sunday 29 June and your tickets will be posted out to you. You’ll need to be living in the UK to enter. Remember that HYPER JAPAN runs from Friday 25 to Sunday 27 July and these tickets are for the Sunday only!


The excitement continues to build for this summer’s HYPER JAPAN 2014! With new guests and exhibitors constantly being confirmed, the team are now starting to put together a provisional main stage timetable, which you can see hereMasked Ninja HIROKI will be flipping, twirling and spinning his way onstage, while traditional Japanese stage arts meet modern choreography and production values with the DEN Entertainment show “The Sake”.  HYPER JAPAN will have a very different meeting of cutting-edge tech and Japanese tradition in the form of Opera: AOI‘s debut, where synthesised singing gives voice to Bunraku puppetry. July’s HYPER JAPAN will also feature the return of crowd-favourite “KimoCos” duo YANAKIKU to London! There’s so much going on, and so much more to be added still, so as always, check out the website for the latest updates.ImageProxy

If you follow this blog, you’ll know I’m currently on hiatus while I focus on my work-related diploma. HYPER JAPAN falls on the final weekend I have to put on the finishing touches, so I sadly won’t be able to make it this year… but thanks to the wonderful people at HYPER JAPAN, one lucky person and their friend will (technically) be going in my place!

A quick announcement…

cat_statue_japanHi, everyone! If you’re particularly observant you might have noticed that I haven’t posted for a few weeks now. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to take a break for a slightly longer period of time than usual. Without boring you to death, I’ll be doing research for a diploma which will be keeping me busy right through until August.

Don’t worry, I’m not stopping blogging per se, but I will be posting on an ‘as and when’ basis rather than weekly. I do have a few films and DVDs to review, and will be making a trip to the famous Japan-inspired cat cafe in London next month, so don’t go away just yet!

Image source: obeythekitty


By SengokuSophie Posted in Other

Date for your diary: Tokaido Road at the Cheltenham Music Festival!

Those of you who love your traditional Japanese music and performing arts might want to make a trip to the Cheltenham Music Festival this July. Tokaido Road, a new multi-media opera based on the Japanese artist Hiroshige’s iconic 53 Stations of the Tokaido, will premier at the festival on Sunday 6 July before touring seven other high profile venues in the UK.
Okeanos, a UK Western-Japanese music ensemble, is behind this intriguing new performance. Visual art, mime, dance, music and poetry will be combined with traditional Japanese instruments, such as the koto and shamisen, with western ones.
The premier event will open with a taste of traditional Japanese music, before composer Nicola LeFanu and librettist Nancy Gaffield discuss how this distinctive soundworld influenced the creation of this new multimedia opera, Tokaido Road.


Taking its name from the series of vivid woodblock prints by Japanese artist Hiroshige, the opera brings Hiro – the figure present in every picture – to life. Journeying from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto against a backdrop of old and new images, Hiro tells of his encounters – humorous, amorous, tragic – through mime, dance, speech and song.

Tokaido Road looks like it will be a real treat, and as a regular to the Cheltenham festivals I really recommend you make a whole weekend out of it if you can! The tickets go on sale on 24 March, and you can buy them on the festival website.

Image credits: Greg Trezise, Cheltenham Festivals