Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tsuchiyu Kokeshis 土湯のこけし

Tsuchiyu Onsen manhole cover.
On the morning of June 18th we began our 10-day Tohoku kokeshi adventure. Our plan was to stay in eastern Aomori prefecture, and from there we would array out and visit the sites and kokeshi makers throughout the prefecture. We also needed to get through, as quickly as possible, the US government's 50-mile (80km) radioactivity danger-zone around the Fukushima Number 1 power plant disaster area. As everyone in Japan knows, both the bullet train and highway go fairly close to the power plant. By about 6:30 am we were on the Tohoku highway traveling north with a surprisingly large number of vehicles, including government disaster-relief trucks. It was smooth sailing until we had entered the exclusion zone due west of the power plant. At that point the traffic thickened, and then we stopped moving entirely -- there had been a serious accident on the highway and everyone going north was being forced to exit the highway and use the local road -- Route 4 -- that paralleled it. Perhaps it was fate, but at that point Naoko noticed that the exit we were sitting at happened to be the exit for Tsuchiyu Onsen (土湯温泉), a famous hot bath and kokeshi town in Fukushima Prefecture! Weighing the option of not moving on the highway or driving into the nearby mountains to visit a kokeshi-making area was not a difficult decision, and soon we were speeding through the beautiful countryside on a perfect early summer day. Although the area was definitely contaminated with some radiation (we saw a school playing field whose soil was being scraped and dumped into a pit), the situation generally seemed normal. After winding up the mountain we entered a tunnel, and the moment we came out of the tunnel we saw a small shop with a sign that said "kokeshi." We weren't even in the main part of town yet and our kokeshi adventure had officially begun.
Watanabe's kokeshi shop.
The identity of Tsuchiyu is wrapped up with kokeshis as much as it is with onsens. It really is a true onsen-kokeshi town which even has its own Tsuchiyu style (土湯系), easily recognizable by the "snake eye" pattern (蛇の目) on the top of the head along with the liberal use of green and red squiggly lines along with horizontal stripes. The noses also tend to be drawn in a U-shape, which is called maruhana (丸鼻 = "round nose") in Japanese. There are kokeshi-related signs everywhere in Tsuchiyu, the lanterns are kokeshi heads, and even the manhole covers have kokeshis on them -- really cool. The shop we first stopped at after exiting the tunnel was that of Mr. Tetsuo Watanabe, who of course creates kokeshis in the Tsuchiyu style using, uniquely, pear-tree wood. Because of the disaster he is no longer able to get the wood he likes, so it's not clear what will happen once his wood supply runs out. Anyway, his kokeshis were beautiful, and the pear wood he uses has a pleasing dark brown color. Naoko and Mr. Watanabe chatted about kokeshis for a bit while his wife fed us some snacks. Besides his regular kokeshis he showed us an exquisite traditional shichifukujin ireko (七福神入れ子 = Seven Gods of Happiness nesting doll) kokeshi that he created, and though tempting at 35,000 yen we had to pass. Their small shop was hit really hard by the March 11th earthquake which knocked almost everything over, including a giant kokeshi that was on display. We bought a couple of beautiful Watanabe kokeshis, and after about an hour we bid these delightful people a fond farewell and headed into Tsuchiyu town. What would we find there? (continued in next blog entry)
Tsuchiyu kokeshis. Note the "snake's eye" on the head, and round U-shaped noses.
Naoko discussing Mr. Watanabe's ireko kokeshi. The giant kokeshi in the middle toppled during the 11 March earthquake.
Kokeshi art like this is all over the town of Tsuchiyu.
Kokeshi-head lanterns.

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