Regions throughout Japan have their own special traditional crafts. From pottery to lacquer ware to textiles and more, there are over 1,000 different types of traditional crafts nationwide. In this article, we will introduce some traditional crafts from the 6 prefectures of Tohoku Region of northern Japan.
Where is the Tohoku Region?
The Tohoku Region is made up of Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures. They are the northernmost prefectures on Honshu, Japan’s main island. The area is known for its snowy winter landscapes, spacious countryside, hot springs and more.
About Japanese Traditional Crafts
Japanese Traditional Crafts are items that have been created and used in daily life throughout Japanese history. Some of them have a special approval from the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry.
Conditions for Approval by the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry
In order for a traditional craft to be officially approved by the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry, it must follow these requirements:
・ The item must be practical for everyday use
・ A significant part of the item must be hand-made
・ The item must have a history of at least 100 years, and must still be made using traditional techniques.
・ The item must be made with the same items that were used at least 100 years ago
・ The item must have a significant presence in its originating region and be created there.
As of 2018, there are 230 traditional crafts that have met these conditions. Tokyo is the prefecture is the most number of them, with 17 traditional crafts.
1. Tsugaru Kogin-zashi Embroidery (Aomori)
Tsugaru Kogin-zashi items (Photo credit: Aomori Prefecture, Tourism and International Affairs Strategy Bureau)
The Tsugaru Kogin-zashi is a traditional embroidery craft from the Tsugaru region in western Aomori. It is one of the three sashiko stitching styles of Japan. Sachiko stitching began in the Edo period (1603 – 1867) as a practical method to fix tears and damages in textiles.
With a history of over 300 years, Tsugaru Kogin-zashi originated as a technique to fix up farmers’ clothes. Due to strict laws on expenditure during the Edo period, farmers were not allowed to wear cotton clothes. Instead, they wore garments made from hemp.
Fabrics made from hemp were coarse and did not retain heat too well, and were overall unfit for Tsugaru’s harsh winters. To add an extra touch of warmth to the hemp fabrics, stiches were incorporated into the clothes via the kogin-zashi technique.
One of the characteristics of kogin-zashi is the geometric pattern stitching called “modoko”. There are over 40 different types of “modoko” stitchings.
How the different types of “modoko” are mixed and matched vary by region. The three major styles are nishi-kogin from the city of Hirosaki, higashi-kogin from the city of Kuroishi and mishima-kogin from the city of Goshogawara.
2. Nambu Tekki (Iwate)
Nambu tekki is made in the Morioka and Oshu regions in eastern Iwate. This is one of Iwate’s representative traditional crafts.
The history of nambu tekki dates back to the mid 17th century. Morioka was thriving as a city of iron manufacturing and had invited over an iron casting professional from Kyoto to make kettles. With the success of the iron kettles, more items such as teapots and weapons were created, and coined the name “nambu tekki”.
In the Oshu area, everyday items made with iron were commonly used for a long time. In the late 1950s, the term “nambu tekki” became used for iron items made in both Morioka and Oshu areas.
Despite the advancement of technology in recent years, most of the nambu tekki making process is still done by hand. A mixture of foundry sand and clay is used to create a cast, and iron is then poured into the cast to create the nambu tekki item.
Colorful nambu tekki has emerged in recent years
Traditional nambu tekki items are a deep black color. In recent years, however, colorful nambu tekki items have emerged. It took a whole three years to devise a successful coloring method for the iron items.
3. Kokeshi Dolls (Miyagi)
Traditional kokeshi dolls
Kokeshi dolls originate in the Tohoku region, and the ones from Miyagi prefecture are especially famous. They were made in the end of the Edo period as toys for children at hot spring facilities.
There are 11 types of traditional kokeshi dolls throughout the Tohoku region. Out of the 11, five are native to the Miyagi region: Togatta, Naruko, Sakunami, Yajiro and Hijiori.
① Togatta Kokeshi
Togatta kokeshi dolls
Togatta kokeshi dolls originated in the Togatta onsen (hot spring) village in southwestern Miyagi. It is considered the oldest form of the kokeshi doll. It is characterized by the crescent moon-shaped eyes and the defined nose.
② Naruko Kokeshi
Naruko kokeshi dolls
Naruko kokeshi dolls are from Naruko onsen in northeastern Miyagi. It uses a special attachment technique called “gatako”, and creates a sound as you turn the doll’s head. Compared to other kokeshi dolls, the faces on the Naruko kokeshi dolls are more realistic and defined.
③ Sakunami Kokeshi
Sakunami kokeshi dolls come from Sakunami onsen in eastern Miyagi, and later grew its popularity in larger cities like Sendai and Yamagata. They are made smaller than other kokeshi dolls to make it easier for children to play with. In recent years, they are made a bit bigger since they are mostly used as decoration.
④ Yajiro Kokeshi
Yajiro kokeshi dolls
Yajiro kokeshi dolls are native to the Yajiro region, which lie near the Kamasaki onsen area in southern Miyagi. These dolls are painted black on the top, and look as if they are wearing berets. There are many different designs of Yajiro kokeshi dolls, since there was a custom of onsen customers specifying and customizing the designs of their kokeshi dolls.
⑤ Hijiori Kokeshi
Hijiori Kokeshi dolls were produced at Hijiori onsen in Yamagata prefecture. However, the family succeeding the Hijiro kokeshi dolls moved to Sendai, and since then, the dolls have been known as a Sendai tradition. They have characteristics similar to Togatta kokeshi dolls and Naruko kokeshi dolls, and have designs of flowers such as chrysanthemums.
4. Odate Magewappa (Akita)
Odate Magewappa bento box
Odate magewappa comes from the Odate region in southeastern Akita. “Magewappa” is a box made from bending thin pieces of wood (such as cedar or hinoki), and is typically used as bento boxes (lunch boxes).
Nowadays, magewappa boxes are made throughout Japan, but the original craft is native to Akita. Feudal lord and owner of the Odate Castle laid his eyes on the cedar trees in his land, and suggested warriors to create boxes out of them as a side job. The magewappa business became so prominent, that instead of only collecting rice as tax, wood was collected as tax too in the Akita region.
The first step in magewappa making is to hand-cut the cedar barks and to soak them in boiling water. When the barks are softened, they are then bent into shape and air-dried. The thin, dried pieces are later attached layer by layer, and the boxes are finished after a final polishing.
Natural wood patterns on a magewappa box
Odate magewappa boxes have beautiful wooden patterns. Another popular characteristic of theses boxes are the subtle yet aromatic cedar scent.
5. Tendo Shogi-koma (Yamagata)
Tendo shogi-koma are the wooden pieces used in the game of shogi, a traditional Japanese board game similar to chess. The city of Tendo in Yamagata prefecture is Japan’s number one producer of shogi-koma, and they are a traditional craft approved by the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry.
The game of shogi is said to have originated in ancient India, and reached Japan during the Nara period (710 – 794), and the wooden pieces were handcrafted by warriors and aristocrats themselves. Entering the Edo period, shogi had reached commoners.
The city of Tendo began to make shogi-koma in the end of the Edo period, as way to combat their failing economy that was a result of poor harvest. In the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), they began to separate the wood piece-cutting jobs from the wood-piece decorating jobs, making the process much faster and allowing for mass production. By the Taisho period (1913 – 1926), the entire process had been mechanized.
There are five different types of Tendo shogi-koma. The “kaki-koma”, where the character on the piece is written in a traditional cursive style, is a type of shogi-koma with an especially long history.
The entire city of Tendo is very involved in spreading the game of shogi throughout Japan. You can find shogi-inspired items throughout the city, such as this shogi monument.
6. Aizu-nuri Lacquer Ware (Fukushima)
Aizu-nuri, a traditional lacquer ware originating in Fukushima’s Aizu region, has a history of over 400 years. It began when a large number of lacquer trees were planted in the area. Some professional lacquer ware craftsmen were then invited over from the Omi area (present day Shiga prefecture), and the craft of Aizu-nuri was born.
Aizu-nuri items are painted beautifully with lacquer, and then a final touch is added with gold flakes. The works with the gold flakes are called “keshifun-makie”, and are one of the representative Aizu-nuri items.
There are many other designs, such as the “kinmushi-kuinuri”, where designs are made with rice hulls, and “hana-nuri”, where oil is painted on to create luster.
The types of wood vary by item. For example, beech and zelkova are used for rounder items like bowls, while magnolias are used for flatter items like plates. The pieces of wood are dried for a few years, and then are made into shape.
Later, the pieces are painted in a 3-layer process, and are finally painted and decorated. Although traditional Aizu-nuri items were limited to tableware and boxes, you can now find Aizu-nuri accessories and stationeries.
DIY Japanese Traditional Crafts
In most regions throughout Japan, you can find gift shops selling the region’s representative traditional crafts. If you want a more hands-on experience, you can look for traditional craft-making experience courses.