Tōhoku's image hasn't had an easy time. Distant, cold and mountainous, the last region of Honshu to fall under Japanese consolidation, and once the home of the mysterious Emishi: aboriginal tribes who resisted the ancient Japanese tenaciously, and who may or may not have had something to do with the Ainu; but they faded from the record so long ago that nobody's really sure who they were now.
Thereafter, Tōhoku developed as a back-of-beyond agrarian region, too rough and remote to thoroughly settle, but nonetheless generating a great deal of rice to feed the nation. The dialects can range from tricky to utterly incomprehensible, though a fair number of its people pulled off the establishing of rather formidable power bases, castle towns and regional identities.
First among these centres stands Sendai, my final port of call on this voyage and base for exploring the east coast prefecture of Miyagi. Both, along with wider Tōhoku, are presently most associated with March 2011's triple calamity – especially to foreigners, for whom it may be the beginning and end of their knowledge of the region at all.
And yet, I found there a society keenly aware of itself and the destiny it's had to forge in the shadow of the southern political heavyweights, or of the wilder exciting frontiers to the north. And Tōhoku's nature, while not unbound and vast like Hokkaido's, offers a beauty of its own: one of concentrated secrets and stalwart local traditions, hidden away amidst the forested hot springs and mountain passes of Japan's upper spine.
As with the Namahage of Oga, it was a video game that brought me to Naruko. Nestled in the high ravines towards the border with Yamagata, this spa town and its neighbouring villages sit amidst natural hot springs which fill the air with a sulphurous fragrance. It is one of about a dozen onsen regions associated with a very peculiar Tōhoku tradition.
These are Kokeshi: one standing, one sitting. They date back at least two or three hundred years into the middle Edo period, when they were developed at onsen (hot spring) resorts like Naruko by local woodwork artisans, and sold to visitors or given as presents to children. For some they also acquired spiritual meanings: talismans for good harvests or elemental protection. Among traditional wooden Japanese toys, Kokeshi lead from the front here.
They have travelled well over these centuries. The video game where I first encountered them, on the now ancient Nintendo 64, was a side-scrolling adventure game featuring massive Kokeshi whose heads or bodies would separate, and come crashing down as platforms you had to negotiate (and if your memory is good enough to recognize which game, I raise my hat to you!). And their presence in that field persists in influencing the Mii avatars on Nintendo's Wii console. Each of the dozen onsen they came from is now famous as an authentic traditional Kokeshi producer, and while they all preserve this heritage, each produces the dolls in its own distinctive local style.
And as for the Kokeshi dolls themselves, they have flown from their workshops to make their respective hot spring villages renowned in their image, such that you know this is Kokeshi territory well before you have stepped off the train. Their shapes and faces dominate storefronts, windows, signposts and even telephone booths, while local Kokeshi stores and workshops abound on every street. It would be a fair estimate that there are now more Kokeshi than people.
As these fellows from the JR Naruko-Onsen Station testify, the Kokeshi's underlying head-and-body structure gives them great flexibility in embracing anything modernity confronts them with. Here are some more, courtesy of Naruko's Kokeshi museum.
I find this powerful. Kokeshi have such potency to be a handshake between ancient and modern, traditional and innovative, past and future, forces which too often pull in opposite directions and struggle to understand one another. On the one hand, the simple yet authentic head and cylinder: you cannot mistake it for anything else. On the other, its open wooden canvas, on which you can create any design you like. Whatever it becomes is at once an artistic expression of the person who drew it – their imagination, their character – and at once a connection to Tōhoku's abiding provincial heritage.
The museum is especially splendid for the insight it gives into how Kokeshi are made. It is a process that starts with specific woods: the light mizuki, or the darker and more expensive cherry. The wood must be dried for months or years, before it is sawn and placed on one of these.
The wood-turner spins the wood round and round, and allows you to shape and polish it into a fine cylinder. The head is also so crafted, then plugged into a hole dug in the cylinder's neck.
Then you can paint it. Black, red and green are the most traditional colours, though some – including the Naruko style – have come to sport glorious yellow too.
With thanks to the museum for the opportunity, I decided to give it a go. Here, upon a certain inspiration, is my amateur contribution to the annals of Naruko's Kokeshi heritage.
Just below the town and museum area is Naruko Gorge, a breathtaking 100-metre-deep ravine well known for its late autumn colours. Sadly, I found that the path along the bottom of the gorge is currently closed off for safety reasons, but there is still some magnificent hiking there through the fabulous summer greenery.
And this is what it's meant to look like in autumn:
There are plenty of curious little creatures around there. Keep an eye out for the tons of cute green crickets – you'll be surprised how far they can jump.
This region is also known for the travels of Matsuo Bashō, seventeenth-century poet and explorer and key figure in – among much else – the development of haiku, who wandered deep into these northern frontiers to find inspiration. His most famous journey took him west of Sendai through these very gorges and mountain passes. This was demanding terrain for all its steep climbs, rough weather and bridgeless rivers crossings, all the more dangerous as a strategic east-west mountain highway between the old Mustu and Dewa provinces, amidst inter-domain tensions, roaming bandits, and military checkpoints.
It was in these parts, high in the mountains, that Bashō and his travelling companion Sora were overtaken by a massive storm and stranded in a hut for three days.
'Bitten by fleas and lice,
I slept in a bed,
A horse urinating all the time
Close to my pillow.'
Most of the actual sights and structures Bashō encountered are long gone, but on any hike around this region you are sure to run into their sites. These now have signs that commemorate his journey, and explain – with impressive detail in English – its local episodes in context.
I also came across this curious installation:
As an abundantly volcanic country of thousands of onsen, one might imagine Japan has great sources of clean geothermal energy. Shockingly, despite the sustainability crisis, Japan's renewable energy sector is embryonic; and in the light of this and the ongoing fury of the nuclear dispute, one wonders why geothermal seems so unexplored and untapped in what appears one of its most promising countries in the world.
All the more so since the huge advances in infrastructure since Bashō wandered through here, making these narrow areas so easy to reach nowadays. Naruko is only two hours from Sendai by train, yet loses none of the charm of its sense of fresh isolation.
I wonder if these issues are being considered, but at the same time hope that any such explorations would take all care to preserve that atmosphere; as well as account for the prospects for onsen managers and residents.
And no, I didn't actually visit any onsen. Not one on this entire trip. In part I didn't get time, but it also arose from my dislike for gender-segregated environments. It seems that traditionally, males and females used onsen together; but with the coming of Western ideas in the Meiji era, one unfortunate influence was the West's mad notion that men and women are fundamentally different species, forever to interact with tension and mutual misunderstanding and be forced into separate spaces in public institutions.
Thus, most onsen in Japan today have separate male and female areas, and my discomfort with artificial gender segregation thus defeats the point of going to onsen at all: that is, to relax. Though there are still mixed onsen around (kon'yoku, 混浴), particularly in rural areas, I unfortunately lacked the time to pursue this on this trip.
In the next entry: Sendai itself, the powerhouse of Tōhoku and the layers of pride and pain it bears on its journey.
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