Dispatch, Japan: Handmade tales

kokeshi dolls
© TW photo by Eric Moya

Destinations editor Eric Moya visited Japan's Tohoku region on a fam trip to experience its fall foliage, hot springs and ryokans. His first dispatch follows.

Automation is a key part of Japan's postwar success story. The country helped pioneer robotics, computer-controlled machinery and other aspects of modern-day manufacturing. Robots are even a mainstay of Japanese pop culture, as anyone who's watched anime over the past four decades can attest.

So my trip to the Tohoku region felt somewhat like a trip back in time. Not that our group was spared contemporary conveniences: We had WiFi in some of the most remote parts of the Tohoku region, and vending machines offering cigarettes, beer, soft drinks and more were on roadsides in the most bucolic of areas.

But given how much I associate Japan with state-of-the-art everything -- with a few exceptions -- it was an enlightening few days in Tohoku. Time certainly hasn't stood still -- after all, the region includes the bustling city of Sendai -- but traditions, and traditional methods, have been kept alive.

There was our visit to the Akiyu craft center, where we tried our hand at decorating kokeshi dolls. The bowling pin-like wood carvings are decorated using watercolor inks and fine-tipped brushes.

© TW photo by Eric Moya

No do-overs. You don't outline your markings in pencil, and the ink immediately permeates the bare wood. It takes a steady hand to achieve clean lines, but the shop's pocket-size examples boasted sharp facial features. I found it nearly impossible on even our kokeshi, which were about 10 inches tall. Still, it was fun giving it a shot, and our instructor was amused by my doll's rakish smirk.

Another example of the handmade approach: Sake is a source of local pride here, and Mori Tokuhide is a case in point. He's a fifth-generation brewer, and except for a digital thermometer and some climate-control equipment in the rice-fermentation room, he makes sake more or less as his ancestors did.

Mori Tokuhide sake
© TW photo by Eric Moya

It keeps production and distribution modest. After a sampling, I was interested in taking a seasonal offering home but was told it was too sensitive to temperature changes to transport such a long distance.

I was a little disappointed, but perhaps it's for the best. That variety of sake, like the fall foliage, festivals and other charms of the Tohoku region, comes once a year, and it's not something that can be fully appreciated if exported. Visitors will just have to experience Tohoku for themselves.

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