Traditional crafts of northern Japan

Japan’s ‘deep north’, the largely rural Tōhoku region is home to craft traditions that have been handed down over generations. A trip to this little-visited swathe of the country offers a chance to see skilled artisans at work – and find a unique souvenir – just a train ride or two from Tokyo.

Papier-mâché tigers, talismanic hawks, cast-iron kettles and the always-popular kokeshi dolls are just a few of the handmade items travellers will encounter on an arty tour of northern Japan. Many artisans have workshops and studios that welcome drop-in visitors, making it easy to ‘atelier hop’ around the region. It’s best to call ahead (or ask your hotel to call) to confirm opening hours before dropping by.

Kokeshi dolls in Naruko Onsen
Kokeshi are simple, limbless wooden dolls decorated with various patterns including chrysanthemums, plum blossoms and stripes. They have traditionally been made in remote hot-spring villages, such as Tsuchiyu Onsen in Fukushima Prefecture, and Shiroishi and Zao in Miyagi Prefecture, where they are still made and have been since the Edo period (1608–1868). As with many folk toys, kokeshi were historically produced by farmers during the long winters to supplement their income. Originally for children, the dolls are now admired as elegant design pieces.

Naruko Onsen in Miyagi Prefecture offers multiple opportunities to visit studios to see woodworkers deftly manipulate the wood into kokeshi, like sculpting butter – to make the body only takes a skilled hand a few minutes. Third-generation artisan Yasuo Okazaki has 40 years’ experience and works out of his own studio. He says collectors find the demure facial expressions of the dolls ‘comforting and healing’. The dolls are experiencing something of a boom in popularity amongst urbanites, who make kokeshi ‘pilgrimages’ to various bucolic villages of the region.

Naruko Onsen also has a kokeshi museum with an expansive shop and an artisan booth – a small space where visitors can watch craftspeople work the lathe.

Naruko Onsen is about 45 minutes by train from Furukawa, which is connected to Sendai by regular and shinkansen (bullet train) services. The views on the Furukawa to Naruko Onsen stretch are particularly stunning in autumn.