Monday, July 4, 2011

Tsuchiyu Kokeshis 土湯のこけし, Part II

Tsuchiyu's giant welcoming kokeshi.
(Continued from the previous blog entry) After leaving the Watanabe's kokeshi shop we followed the signs to the main part of Tsuchiyu, which was really just a series of buildings along the side of the beautiful Ara River (荒川) flowing from the mountains above. As noted in the previous blog, kokeshis and kokeshi images were everywhere in Tsuchiyu, including an enormous one made by Mr. Watanabe housed in a protective shed. After Naoko stopped by the visitor center for information we walked through the rain and immediately found a kokeshi shop and cafe that apparently catered to serious collectors. I say this because it had beautiful examples of traditional kokeshis from throughout Tohoku for sale. The owner said that the March 11th earthquake and major aftershocks knocked over everything three times, and that in total he lost about 100 pieces. We continued walking and a couple of shops down the street was a store selling traditional wooden Japanese toys, which also housed hundreds of old kokeshis housed in glass cases. As we strolled along further we saw a kokeshi-maker's shop that was closed and had to keep going. We stopped for a while at a free foot hot bath (足湯) decorated with kokeshi-head lanterns, and then found a bridge guarded by enormous kokeshis. Was this kokeshi heaven? All I know is that if you throw a stone in any direction in Tsuchiyu you will hit something related to kokeshis.
At this point it was lunchtime and Naoko knew of a soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles) restaurant with
Giant bridge kokeshis. There are two more on the other side.
some sort of kokeshi connection further up the street, which we soon found. The "kokeshi connection" was actually quite deep, and everything in the restaurant was kokeshi themed. Even the chef wore a hapi coat with a kokeshi face on the back. After a delicious lunch we found out why -- the man who made our soba was Mr. Yukinori Jinnohara (陣野原幸紀), a famous kokeshi maker! I suppose we shouldn't have been surprised. Naoko couldn't resist buying a couple of his large-scale kokeshis. Our last stop in town was what appeared to be a regular souvenier shop that sold kokeshis, but was also a kokeshi maker's workshop -- Mr. Kunitoshi Abe (阿部国敏). Unfortunately for us Mr. Abe was in Tokyo selling his complete supply of kokeshis, so we didn't get any of his pieces. However, we did find a couple of nice Tsuchiyu kokeshis made by some other craftsmen. The lady who owned the shop, Mrs. Abe, told us how difficult things had become since the earthquake, and that she wasn't sure how much longer she'd be able to keep her shop open. Fortunately one of her son's kokeshi designs has recently become a hit, but clearly times are tough in this place. Despite economic difficulties she gave our girls a couple of wooden tops as gifts. In fact every shop we went into gave our daughters presents -- absolutely unbelievable.
Mr. Jinnohara makes soba and kokeshis.
Overall our unplanned visit to Tsuchiyu was a really great start to our big kokeshi adventure. However, although everyone was welcoming and kind we left with mixed emotions. First of all, there was the nuclear issue. I suppose we might have been exposed to some radiation while in Tsuchiyu, but I believe the real concern is long-term exposure so three hours there for us was a calculated risk. Nevertheless, how will the radiation effect the people who live there? Also, from what we could tell the town of Tsuchiyu is in serious trouble. We only saw one building seriously damaged by the earthquake, and currently the hotels and inns are filled with refugees from the disaster area at the Japanese government's expense. While that is undoubtedly good for the hotel owners, it is not good for shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and kokeshi makers since the refugees are not buying kokeshis or eating out. Among the people we talked to there is serious concern for the town's future. The refugees will be leaving soon which will free up hotel rooms, but will tourists want to come to a place that is so close to the Fukushima power plant disaster area? What will happen to the kokeshi makers and the Tsuchiyu tradition, and will Mr. Watanabe find a new source for the pear wood that he prefers to use? These are questions beyond the ken of a humble blog, but they're worth pondering nonetheless. 
Next blog: Kokeshis of Aomori Prefecture.
This kokeshi shop was closed when we were in Tsuchiyu.
Mr. Jinnohara's soba shop.
A kokeshi shop and cafe in Tsuchiyu. All the kokeshis here fell over three times during the earthquake and aftershocks.
A Japanese wooden toy shop and small kokeshi museum. 
Matsuya Souveniers. It is also Mr. Abe's kokeshi workshop.
Inside Matsuya Souveniers.

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