You probably had a kaleidoscope when you were a kid. You peered inside and turned the end of the cylindrical tube so the colorful glass pieces it contained tumbled into a myriad of patterns. Until I visited Japan, I thought of kaleidoscopes as children’s toys.
Then I toured the Kyoto Kaleidoscope Museum and realized kaleidoscopes are much more than playthings- they are works of art.
Japan has five kaleidoscope museums in different cities. They show the works of Japanese kaleidoscope creators who have gained international reputations. The first kaleidoscopes came to Japan with traders in 1819 just a few years after a Scottish physicist named David Brewster invented them. They were objects of intrigue because it was a period of Japanese history when anything from the western world was banned.
In the Japanese language, kaleidoscopes are known as ‘hyaku-iro-megane’, which means ‘mirror tube with a hundred colors.’ One of the first industries the Americans revived in Japan after defeating the country in World War II was the toy industry and many kaleidoscopes were manufactured in Japan for export to North America. It was only in the 1990s however that kaleidoscope making and creating became an art form in Japan.
The museum we visited in Kyoto has a large collection of kaleidoscopes of all shapes, sizes, and designs. We saw kaleidoscopes that looked like pagodas, vases, leaves, butterflies, and houses. There was one kaleidoscope located inside a huge clay pot. A famous elderly Japanese potter had made the terra cotta container and her granddaughter who is a kaleidoscope artist had created the kaleidoscope inside.
One of Japan’s kaleidoscope art galleries has a giant kaleidoscope you can actually walk into. The Kyoto museum didn’t have a kaleidoscope that size, but they did have one you could stick your whole face into and see your features refracted into hundreds of beautiful colored bits.
The kaleidoscopes we saw had lovely names like Dawn, Star Life, Dazzle and Marvel Eyes. Two especially unique kaleidoscopes were called Dream Light and Blue Flower. They were created by Japan’s most famous kaleidoscope artists Mitsuru and Yuriko Yoda, a husband and wife team. Their work is in the collections of kaleidoscope aficionados around the world. Some of their pieces sell for as much as four thousand dollars. Japan has juried exhibitions and competitions each year for kaleidoscope artists.
The kaleidoscope museum in Kyoto began as a government project but after funding was cut, donors and volunteers kept it open. The elderly gentlemen volunteering the day we were there were infinitely helpful and polite. They showed us how the various kaleidoscopes worked and they operated the kaleidoscope light show. A room in the museum was darkened and the walls danced with huge spinning kaleidoscope patterns coming from a number of projectors hanging from the ceiling. Other volunteers were hosting workshops where museum guests of all ages could construct their own kaleidoscopes.
Apparently, kaleidoscopes are popular items for businesses to purchase as corporate gifts in Japan, the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. Rosabeth Canter an American business intellectual explains why. “ Creativity is a lot like looking at the world through a kaleidoscope. You look at the same set of elements everyone else sees, but then reassemble those bits and pieces into exciting new possibilities.” It sounds like a good way to look at any challenge in life and a good thing to remember as we begin a new year. I bought a small kaleidoscope keyring in Kyoto to remind me that in any new or difficult situation there are ways to look at things differently and imagine a kaleidoscope of possibilities.
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