Traditional Arts & Crafts of Tohoku

  • Published on : 17/09/2023
  • by : O.F.
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L'artisanat traditionnel du Tohoku - les poupées Kokeshi

Traditional Tohoku crafts - Kokeshi dolls

Tohoku tourist office

Japanese ancestral traditions through craftsmanship

Located north of the main island of the Japanese archipelago, the northern part of Honshu known as Tohoku has its own cultural identity and traditions passed down from generations for years. Though it has its share of larger cities, such as Sendai and Aomori, Tohoku is often noted for its more rural geography and strong ties to tradition that often come with life in the countryside. This can be seen in its abundance of spectacular festivals, and especially in its array of traditional artisanal crafts that call this region home.

Kokeshi dolls

The famous Kokeshi dolls originate from Miyagi Prefecture. They were made in the late Edo period (1603-1868) as toys for children in hot springs. Since Tohoku has many natural hot springs and Onsen, these little dolls quickly spread throughout the region.

These wooden dolls without arms or legs have an enlarged round head and are usually painted red, black, and yellow. Don't be fooled by their simplistic appearance as there are 11 different kinds of kokeshi dolls in the Tohoku region, nearly half of which originate from Miyagi Prefecture.

To discover these traditional dolls, go to one of the spas in the region such as Naruko Onsen, which also has a museum dedicated to kokeshi. It is about 45 min from Furukawa Station, which connects to the Tohoku Shinkansen. Little more, you can go to Naruko Onsen using the Japan Rail Pass!

Aside from Miyagi's Naruko Onsen, other parts of Tohoku are well-noted for the kokeshi doll craft, many of which have distinct patterns that are unique to their area of origin. 

Tsuchiyu Onsen in Fukushima is noted for its kokeshi dolls with colorful striped patterns. Ones in Aomori are often distinguished with floral and other nature-inspired designs. If possible, be sure to take the time to enter kokeshi specialty shops to see the works of different artisans, each of their dolls and the interior of their shops teeming with stories throughout the years. 

Naruko Kokeshi

Naruko Kokeshi

Tohoku tourist office

The region's ironwork workshops are renowned for their kitchen utensils and other everyday household objects, but above all else, as iron teapots, popular all over the world and a flagship object of this art.

These teapots are carefully cast and lacquered and what makes them special is that their interiors are burnt over a charcoal fire for about an hour to prevent rust and ensure a long life. They are distinguished with their deep, rustic color and a detailed design often consisting of numerous, small, elevated dots that line the circumference of the pot known as arare, however, each craftsman is free to create the pattern that suits them best on the outside of the teapots, you will find different types depending on the workshop.

Nanbu Tekki

Nanbu Tekki

Public domain

These candles are meticulously designed one by one by a craftsman. To create them, the wicks are hand-rolled and dipped in a special wax derived from lacquer trees dozens of times, giving them delicate ‚Äúgrowth rings,‚ÄĚ similar to those found in trees. They are then¬†painted by hand and decorated mainly with floral motifs, such as plum blossoms and peonies. These artisanal candles are often used as decoration during traditional weddings or at Buddhist temples.

The beauty of these candles can be fully appreciated via the Aizu Erosoku Festial that takes place on the grounds of Tsuragajo Castle. The area around the castle and castle park are adorned with many of these candles that illuminate the night during winter. They are often placed directly on the snow, creating a beautiful medley of glowing light that is juxtaposed to stark white. There are a number of locations throughout the prefecture that these candles can be seen as well, such as Higashiyama Onsen and Nanukamachi dori by Amidaji Temple. 

Also in Aizuwakamatsu, visitors can personally try their hand at creating these candles at the Ozawa Candle Shop. 

Kawatsura Lacquer

Lacquerware has a long and storied history in Japan, and maintains a staple of the nation's artisanal history up to this day, with a medley of collectors and high-end restaurants serving their own culinary art atop high-quality Japanese-made lacquer plates and trays.

For Kawatsura Lacquer, the technique was first introduced in Yuzawa City, Akita Prefecture. With nearly 800 years of history, Kawatsura Lacquer is highly regarded for its durability and ornate, vibrant designs.The essential part of this technique is the undercoat, consisting of a mixture of persimmon juice and charcoal powder, applied and polished after drying.

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