Saturday, July 30, 2011

Towada Kokeshi 十和田こけし

In the heart of Aomori Prefecture is a magnificent crater lake called Lake Towada (十和田湖). Before our big Tohoku trip began we had read on a Japanese kokeshi blog that there was a traditional kokeshi shop near the lake, so our visit to Towada also became a kokeshi adventure.
Towada Kokeshi exterior view.
The directions we created using Google Maps were vague for some reason, possibly because of a new road and tunnel that leads to the tourist area where numerous souvenir shops, restaurants, and inns are located. While we had a wonderful drive up through Oirase Gorge and along the lakeshore, it did get confusing. Fortunately an old lady on the side of the road pointed us in the right direction, and soon we had arrived at Towada Kokeshi, a large sovenier shop that also sells kokeshis made by Mr. Takase Tokio (高瀬時男). Interestingly, although the shop is in the heart of Aomori Prefecture Mr. Takase's kokeshis are not of the Tsugaru Type (津軽系). Instead they are a unique version of a Naruko Style (鳴子系), according to some on-line Japanese sources. What undoubtedly makes some of them unique is the Daruma faces painted on them, one of the design features of Tsugaru kokeshis. Are Takase kokeshis hybrids?
Anyway, we were happy to find the place, examine and photograph the kokeshis, and talk with Mr. Takase's son who told us that things have gotten really bad for all of the local businesses at Towada since the nuclear disaster. Tourism has almost completely dried up, and not only are people not visiting from the Tokyo area, but they're also not coming down from Hokkaido, apparently out of fear of radiation in the Tohoku. This is misplaced fear by the way -- I recently checked radiation levels for Japan's prefectures and Aomori (as well as Akita, Yamagata, and Iwate) are much lower than the Kanto Plain. If the tourists do not return to Aomori it's pretty clear what will happen to Towada Kokeshi and the other shops, restaurants and inns along the lake. When we were there on a perfect late June day you could have counted the number of visitors on two hands.
Medium-sized Takase kokeshis.
Meanwhile, the Towada Kokeshi shop was festooned with a number of kokeshi-themed noren (暖簾), those split doorway curtains that one sees hanging in front of traditional restaurants in Japan. Of course we had to get one, but when we tried to make the purchase we were told that the people who make the norens have been displaced because of the earthquake disaster and it's unclear when they'll be available again. The  ones on display were not for sale. Too bad -- kokeshi norens are pretty cool!
Although this was a genuine kokeshi adventure, and we bought three Takase kokeshis of various sizes, the visit was certainly tinged with some melancholy. American and foreign readers: The impact of the 3-11 disaster is real, is far-reaching, and there's still no end in sight for many because of the Fukushima disaster. If you can support the kokeshi makers and other traditional craftsmen please do. The best way would be to visit northeastern Japan as a tourist, but if that's not possible at the very least please keep these folks in your thoughts and prayers.

Ejiko (えじこ) kokeshis and a Daruma.
Large and giant Takase kokeshis.
Kokeshi-design noren.
In the shop.
The sign says: "Welcome. Takase. Kokeshis of Lake Towada."

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