Photo/Illutration"Shimekazari" ornaments shaped like a bird crane are sold at an open-air stall in Kita-Kyushu on Dec. 27, 2017. (The Asahi Shimbun)

For graphic designer Sumako Mori, 47, her busiest time is the week-long, year-end and New Year's holiday season. She travels around the nation in search of expertly-crafted "shimekazari" ornaments made of "shimenawa" (rice-straw rope) and decorated with various items that are believed to bring good luck, and hung on the doors of private homes and businesses.

"Everybody takes down their shimekazari as soon as the holiday season is over," Mori explained. "During my annual trip, I practically have my nose pressed to the train window, hoping to spot some interesting pieces along the way. I try to keep my train transfers as brief as possible, so I'll have more time to explore stores and open-air stalls selling those ornaments."

Over the last 20 years, Mori has collected 400 or so shimekazari pieces. They can be seen in her book, "Shimekazari," published by Kousakusha Co.

Shimekazari come in all styles and themes.

In Ishikawa Prefecture, Mori has come across ones shaped like a tortoise shell. In Okayama and Tottori prefectures, she has collected examples with two rings side-by-side, resembling eye glasses. The bird crane appears to be a common theme throughout Kyushu, while she has come across "Takarabune" (treasure ship) featured in shimekazari from Akita and Tokushima prefectures.

"A nationwide distribution map of shimekazari does not correspond to the map of Japan by prefectures," Mori noted. "Even within the same prefecture, the design can change drastically across a mountain or a river."

She showed me 30 items from her collection. Their designs featured all sorts of themes, ranging from a dove to a snake, a lobster, a horse, "shamoji" (wooden spatula for serving rice), "tawara" (rice bag made of straw) and "wan" (eating or drinking bowl).

I was deeply impressed by the sheer expertise with which anonymous shimekazari makers have fashioned so many exquisite pieces of straw art.

American zoologist and orientalist Edward Morse (1838-1925), the discoverer of the Omori Shell Mound in Tokyo in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), was fascinated by shimekazari. He sketched what he saw on the street, and raved about their beauty in his diary, describing the tremendous pleasure he drew from roaming the streets during the New Year's holiday season and studying many different kinds of shimekazari.

Today, makers of genuine traditional shimekazari are a dying breed.

Looking at the plethora of cheap foreign imports at supermarkets and convenient stores, I was struck by the accuracy of Morse's prophecy of a century ago: that all things Japanese will disappear before too long.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 3

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.