Friday, January 4, 2013

December 2012 Adventure 1 12月の冒険1

After a couple of months of no kokeshi trips Naoko, the girls and I were once again able to get back on the road for what would be a first-class Kokeshi Adventure. We got up early on 26 December, the day after Christmas, and hit the Tohoku Expressway. Destination: Sakunami Onsen 作並温泉 in the mountains west of Sendai! It was pretty smooth sailing until the Oizumi Interchange, after which we got stuck in heavy traffic because of an accident somewhere ahead. As you can see in the photo, the highway leading north out of the biggest city in the world only has two lanes, so even a little fender bender can snarl traffic for hours. Fortunately, the accident was beyond the next interchange we had to take, so after about 45 minutes of that mess we were truly on our way to Tohoku. Hurray!
Of course that's when we started seeing signs saying that there was heavy snow on the highway in the mountains, and that we would be required to put on our chains. Sheesh. I was expecting some snow, in fact hoping for it, but chains on the highway would easily add a couple of hours to our drive. Fortunately, by the time we got to the mountains the snow on the highway had melted and the worst we experienced were some flurries. Ironically, it was the traffic in the Tokyo that probably saved us from having to drive in the snow, so thank you very much heavy traffic! 
Snow flurries on the highway.
We got off the highway at the Sakunami Onsen exit, which was still about 45 minutes from where we were headed. On the way we stopped at a Sendai-style ramen shop for lunch, and then to the beautiful Sendai observatory and astronomy museum for a couple of hours. I highly recommend this place. Intestingly, when we told one of the staff members that we were going to Sakunami to hunt for kokeshis she was completely surprised. Even though she was from Sendai she had no idea about its kokeshi tradition. That was kind of sad, but we did our part to educate her so hopefully she'll get to Sakunami and find some kokeshis.
Sendai Observatory and Astronomy Museum -- highly recommended.
It was pretty cold at the observatory and the temperature was quickly dropping, so we decided to  start driving up to Sakunami at around 3:30. By that time the sun was already going down and we could see that it was snowing where we were heading. Sure enough, flurries began the further into the mountains we went, and the snow accumulated on the road to the point that I finally had to put on the chains. Oh well. And we were so close to our hotel too!
That's me putting chains on the minivan. You see, if you love kokeshis like we do then these are the lengths to which one will go when hunting for them. Note the sign in the background -- we were officially in Sakunami Onsen.
A close up of the sign. Those are Sakunami kokeshis welcoming us.
We've been to Sakunami Onsen a couple of times before, and once again decided to stay at Katakuri no Yado かたくりの宿, a small hotel that we like because it has a very nice onsen, and also because there's the option to not get meals with the room. If you want to see what it looks like click here. The no-food option is good because the price of the stay comes way down (the money saved can then be used for kokeshis of course), and also since we get to eat the kind of food we want. That might sound complicated, but in Japan that's how it is. So in the middle of a cold, blowing, snowy evening that was already -6 degrees Celsius we checked into the hotel. Ah, our hot bath awaited us.  
The hotel entry has four giant Sakunami kokeshis on display. Yet another reason to stay here.
But it was still early and we had some plans before we could jump into the bath. First, and most importantly, is that in the middle of that inclement weather we went to see kokeshi craftsman Mr. Hiraga Teruyuki 平賀輝幸さん in his small workshop. He was expecting us, and as you'll see in the photos below he has been busy creating lots of new kokeshi designs. It's really amazing what he comes up with, and we did indeed leave with some very nice pieces. Although it was somewhat late Mr. Hiraga and his mother welcomed us into the warm workshop area where there's a wood-burning stove that keeps the entire room nice and toasty. Soon snacks and tea were served and we were talking about kokeshis and life in Sakunami which can be difficult with the amount of snow they get. While the girls ran around outside in the snow we had a nice time chatting and viewing all the new kokeshis that Mr. Hiraga had created.
A nighttime view of the Hiraga Kokeshi Workshop.  
A box of kokeshi heads soon to become full-fledged kokeshis.
Naoko happily munching on a cracker.
"Sakunami kokeshis: On Sale Now."
A cute Hiraga kokeshi.
A number of large Hiraga kokeshis. The one in the front is a kokeshi version of Sendai's medieval hero Date Masamune 伊達政宗. This kokeshi is fantastic.
A couple of years ago Naoko bought a kokeshi sitting in an onsen by Mr. Hiraga. He recently took that a step further with a kokeshi family enjoying a bath. Really creative!
This says "Mini Santa," so I think the label was wrong. It's obviously an historical person, but who?
Hiraga kokeshi version of another historical figure, Iroha Hime, or Princess Iroha, the eldest daughter of Date Masamune who we saw above.
Oh yes, there were lots of Christmas and Santa kokeshis. I'll talk about them further in an upcoming blog.
We finally said goodnight to the Hiragas and headed to our favorite Korean bar-b-q restaurant up the hill. We had a delicious meal and were really happy to be back in Sakunami Onsen. After dinner we returned to our hotel and, at long last, we could finally have a relaxing soak in the onsen.
In the Korean bar-b-q restaurant. That haze is actually smoke from one of the tabletop grills nearby.  But we persevered and had a great dinner.
So that ended day one of our latest kokeshi adventure. Next up: Sakunami Onsen, day 2.

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