Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Summer Kokeshi Adventure at Zao 1 蔵王で夏のこけし冒険

A ski lift at Zao, waiting for snow.
Last November Naoko, the girls, our good friends and I went to Zao Onsen 蔵王温泉 up in mountains outside of Yamagata City where we visited a kokeshi maker's shop. It was a great adventure, but for some reason I forget to mention it in this blog. Well, during our recent summer kokeshi adventure we returned to Zao, so now I'm going to write about that amazing place.
Zao Onsen, according to banners hanging around the town (and the town's web site), was first developed 1,900 years ago. I'm not sure how they could know this since writing didn't exist in Japan at that time, but nonetheless that's amazing. So, Zao is known for its ancient and amazing hot baths (the whole town smells like boiled eggs, there's steam everywhere, and the drains running throughout the town are bright yellow from the sulfur), its great skiing during the winter, and, of course, its kokeshis. In fact, for those of you who are new to the kokeshi world Zao even has its own family: Zao-Takayu 蔵王高湯系. When we went there on 13 July we found two kokeshi makers' shops that were open.
Mr. Saito's shop.
The first place was we went was a souvenir shop and inn on the main street of town that Naoko heard about somewhere. We walked down the hill from where we had parked, crossed over the river that carries away all of Zao's hot water, and finally found the shop. It's owned by 83-year old craftsman Mr. Saito Takeo 斎藤健男さん, a third generation kokeshi maker. Unfortunately, Mr. Saito wasn't in, but there were many of his kokeshis to look at. Mr. Saito's son was there setting out some cherry jam he had just made. Though a jam maker, he told us that he is not a kokeshi craftsman, so it looks like the family tradition will come to an end with his father. Anyway, we took a good look at the kokeshis and as you can see in the pictures there were many available. I have to admit that by this point in our kokeshi adventure I was not as excited as usual, perhaps because the designs weren't all that striking. But it was a kokeshi shop, so that's good enough for me.
Naoko examining wares.
Some of Mr. Saito's pieces.
Another view.
These three-headed ones were innovative, but in the end we didn't get one.
A photo of Mr. Saito at work. It would've been nice to meet him.
We got the kokeshi on the bottom with the rape flower design. Quite nice.
I'm going to save the other Zao kokeshi shop we visited for the next installment, but I did want to mention a very interesting place that we walked past while strolling around Zao: A hotel called Kokeshi no Yado Shosenkaku こけしの宿招仙閣. Yes, it's a kokeshi-themed hotel, and even though our plans were to stay just for lunch and then head back to Tokyo, I was really tempted to try and get a room! Alas, we couldn't do it this time but I think you'll agree that for kokeshi lovers this would be a great place to stay.
Kokeshi no Yado.
A closer view. Those are kokeshis in the entrance.
Double, double toil and trouble. Bubbling hot springs like this are all over Zao. This one's right across the street from the Kokeshi Hotel. 
Before heading back to Tokyo it started to pour rain right as we were searching for an onsen. The locals told us to go to a small, public hot bath that was apparently Zao's original spring. So we did, paying on the honor system. It was, bar none, the hottest onsen I've ever been in, and I had to poor buckets of freezing water on myself just to be able to go in for a couple minutes. It was fantastic, but too hot.
That little brown building is the public onsen. The water rises right up from beneath your feet.
Another of Zao's springs on the side of a parking lot.

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