Arts & Design Tohoku

7 Famous Traditional Crafts of Tohoku

The whole Tohoku region is breathtakingly an awesome place to discover that comprises six prefectures Aomori, Akita, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata.

Tohoku’s wonderful unique outdoor nature, local cuisines, glorious history, and impressive ancient crafts have always mystified me with pleasure.

Many of the great artisans in the region have had their own skills handed down through one generation to the next. Their notable artworks have reflected the region’s history, and lifestyle.

Looking so cute!! Two creative kokeshi dolls. Photo Credit: THOR at Flickr.

Each region has developed their distinctive style craft ideas, for example, Akita’s lacquerware is different than those of the ones you see in Iwate. Today, I have brought to you the 7 (seven) most impressive traditional crafts of Tohoku.

If you ever visit Tohoku, please make sure you buy at least one of those crafts as souvenir. When it comes to decorating, one of these crafts would definitely shine your home and bring a new elegant home décor inspiration. Anyway, these are all valuable treasures!

1) Kokeshi

A creative Kokeshi doll, Tohoku. Photo Credit: crayonmonkey at Flickr.

Often people in Japan say that if you are to find the Japan’s top traditional souvenirs, head north – literally it means heading towards the Tohoku region.

There you can find beautiful, iconic styles of crafts. And one of the highly valued crafts in the region is called Kokeshi. Seriously, they are kawaii dolls!

These arm and leg less wooden dolls come in an enlarged round head that has a simple floral design, and usually painted in red, black, and yellow. It is said that throughout the Tohoku region there are a total of 10 types of Kokeshi. Surprised?!

The tradition of crafting this sort of wooden doll was originated in the Edo Period (1603-1886). It could bring good luck to you, no kidding! There are two kinds of Kokeshi doll you can find, traditional and creative kokeshi.

Buying kokeshi doll as a souvenir is highly recommended whenever you visit Tohoku.

Bring it home and protect your house against fire. To know more about this traditional doll and its facts, please read the full article here.

If possible then buy some Naruko kokeshi, they are my all time favorite and just like others I think they are the real gems of Miyagi prefecture.

2) Nambu Ironware

How impressive is that?! Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Craftsmen who came to Morioka city from Kyoto in the early 17th century (during the Edo Period) have died a long time ago, but their tradition of making craftworks such as teakettles, temple bells, weapons, wind chimes, pots, pans, and other kitchen items have not.

Nambu tekki, the traditional ironware of Iwate prefecture has not just cherished the life of Japanese but foreigners too.

Historically, it was first developed in two cities, Morioka city and Mizusawa city of Iwate Prefecture. The Nambu clan who built the famous Morioka Castle about 400 years ago brought this tradition in order to promoting the tea ceremony and cultural development.

Its production process is quite complex from drawing a diagram to polishing and then coloring. After all, an artisan has to be very skilled and dedicated. The metal used in making Nambu ironware is very durable at the same time beautiful.

In recent times, varieties of colors are available when choosing elegant Nambu ironware. Being one of the beautiful handicrafts of Tohoku, it was designated as a Traditional Craftwork of Japan in 1975.

3) Tsugaru Lacquerware

Tsugaru Nuri tableware! Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Tsugaru Nuri is a lacquerware made in the city Hirosaki of Aomori Prefecture. The origin of making this unique style craft started in the middle of the Edo period during the era of the fourth generation lord of the Tsugaru clan called Tsugaru Nobumasa – the ruler of Hirosaki Domain at that time. It has a history over 350 years.

Tsugaru nuri is so appealing with its lustrous coating that once you touch its glossy sheen and hold it in your hand you would be surprised.

Making a tsugaru nuri takes a lengthy process as one has to first choose a quality dried wood, and then implements the rest of the procedure from base pattern layering to coloring and then polishing.

In fact multiple layers of different colored lacquers are used to create a colorful patchy effect. The shiny quality and beauty of this lacquerware depends on the coating.

Different sort of amazing looking tsugaru nuri pattern tableware used in everyday life are commonly made using this technique such as chopsticks, bowls, plates, boxes are found in entire Tohoku region. Price could vary depending on shop location!

4) Magewappa

Magewappa – lunchboxes. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Magewappa (bent woodware) is a traditional woodcraft of Akita prefecture. It is used to make stylish lunchboxes/bento boxes, steamers, salad bowls, sushi plates, and many more.

The tradition of crafting magewappa first originated in Odate city (Akita prefecture) about 400 years ago and largely developed thereafter.

It is renowned for growing highest number of cedars in Japan and one of the heaviest snowfall areas in the Tohoku region. The weather there is quite favorable for growing high quality cedar woods.

Magewappa are said to have originated when woodcutters from Odate city made food containers by bending straight grained sheets of cedar to use as lunchboxes.

Their brilliant idea of making such creative containers greatly surprised the feudal lord. Indeed, the lord and woodcutters at that time inspired many artisans to create wonderful magewappa bento lunchboxes including other magewappa items.

The procedure of creating magewappa is relatively easy than those of the above crafts described in this post; first the shavings are boiled, carefully bent and then tied up with bark from sakura tree.

Please note that it was designated a Traditional Craft of Japan in 1980. Magewappa are very lightweight, so I hope your luggage has a room for this awesome traditional craft product. Click here to see how it is crafted.

5) Akabeko

Akabeko – the symbol of Fukushima. Photo Credit: This-is-Fukushima at Flickr.

Akabeko is probably one of the cutest traditional crafts ever created in Japan. Spending some times playing with a hand palm sized Akabeko is really entertaining.

Just move it slightly or touch the head of it, and then see how it swing and shake its head. It is one of Fukushima Prefecture’s most famous traditional crafts, and a symbol of Aizu area in the Tohoku region, made from two pieces of papier-mâché covered wood. You know what, I have been fascinated by this beautiful doll since the first time I saw one.

The origin of Akabeko is unclear to me, though based on various versions of the legends we get some ideas. One legend says that a herd of powerful red bulls appeared from nowhere to help rebuilding the temple (Kokuzoudo temple) that was damaged by a devastating earthquake.

On the other hand, another legend tells us, the cow that helped carrying the lumber for constructing Enzo-ji temple refused to leave the temple ground.

In fact he was told to leave place right after the temple’s completion. However, the Akabeko did not leave the place and gave its spirit to Buddha and then turned to stone. These are quite interesting, right?

Akabeko does not only recognize as a cute souvenir of Aizu region, instead people value it as a lucky charm. It is believed that it could bring you good luck, help children grow up strong, and could ward off smallpox and other illnesses.

Keeping these all positive attitudes in mind, you must collect few akabeko from the souvenir shops located all over Fukushima.

6) Kawatsura Lacquerware

Kawatsura lacquerware bowls. Photo Credit:

People mostly buy Kawatsura lacquerware for one big reason, and that’s for its durability. It will last for many years, even your grandchildren would be pleased to use it in the future that you buy now.

It has won recognition and praise from experts both at home and abroad for its great distinctive design and lastingness.

With almost 800 years of history, Kawatsura lacquerware has been designated as one of the most famous traditional crafts in the country. This kind of Japanese lacquerware first introduced in Yuzawa city, Kawatsura, Akita Prefecture.

In search of high quality Kawatsura lacquerware items (bowls, trays, plates, cups, stacked boxes) that are used in our everyday life you have got to head to this peaceful town.

Different kinds of woods are selected based on the product that an artisan going to make. Prior to the final touch to carve, the wood is cut into appropriate sizes, and then dried in a given standard quality. However, the most important part of this lacquerware is undercoating.

It involves repeating processes of charcoal application where a mixture of persimmon juice and charcoal powder is applied before drying and polishing the wood. Once this process is done successfully, again a coating of persimmon juice is applied and polished.

This undercoating procedure continues 5 to 6 times till it gets very smooth and strong. To finish the product, advanced technique called hananuri – the floral coating is required.

Abundant natural resources in the area have blessed the locals to create such a refined craft. You are encouraged to buy some Kawatsura lacquerware products for your own use as well as for others as they are thought to make great unique gifts!

7) Yamagata Imono

They look pretty wonderful and solid! Photo Credit:

If you have not heard of Yamagata Imono before, then I think you are very much keen to explore this authentic Japanese craft.

The origin of Yamagata Imono dates back to the mid Heian Period (794-1185), about 900 years ago from now, when Minamoto no Yoriyoshi (head of Minamoto clan) visited Yamagata region with his army in order to suppress uprisings.

The metal casters who were accompanying the warlord found that the sand in the Mamigasaki River flowing through Yamagata city and the soil around Chitose Park were quite ideal for iron casting.

Those who decided to stay in that area and began casting production are thought to be the founders of Yamagata Imono. However, the production largely developed during the Edo period.

The main highlight of this handicraft is found in the use of hundreds year old traditional techniques to create objects with a thin and best texture while still keeping the solid influence of ironware.

The techniques used by the Imono artisans had presented the locals variety forms of articles such as garden lanterns, pans, iron kettle, iron teapots (chagama – used for tea ceremony), bells, Buddha statue, cooking pot and many more. Today, locals in Yamagata boats of having this sort of precious authentic handicraft as part of their tradition.

If you are planning to visit Tohoku region or you are there right at this moment then make sure that when you have time to shop there buy at least one of these 7 greatest traditional crafts of Tohoku.

Having said that I have to admit these are the things I do really care about together with visiting Tohoku’s most impressive tourist spots.

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