In celebration of the spirited culture of northern Japan

by Yoko Haruhara

Special To The Japan Times

It has been just over a year since the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred, and to commemorate the disaster in a show of support for the worst-hit areas, the Japan Folk Crafts Museum’s “Tohoku Crafts and Shiko Munakata” is featuring crafts and art from the Tohoku region of northern Japan.

Artifacts on show hail from all six of Tohoku’s prefectures — Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata, and Fukushima — and they exemplify the richness of daily life in northern Japan that harks back to its colorful history of powerful regional lords and samurai families. Included are examples of ceramics, metal work, wood crafts and kimonos from the Edo Period (1603-1867) to present day — together reflecting feudal and local traditions, the harsh climate of the region and the combination of beauty and simplicity found in northern-region crafts.

To cope with the cold winter days and nights, Tohoku homes were traditionally designed to have irori (open hearths), above which rustic Nanbu cast-iron kettles were hung, suspended from high ceiling beams. Such kettles are symbolic of the elegance and simplicity of Tohoku handiwork and they embody the beauty and innovative craftsmanship of Japanese ironwork.

Iron smelting was first introduced to Japan during the Yayoi Period (about 300 B.C. to A.D. 300), although the use of the name “Nanbu ware” can be attributed the role of feudal lord Nanbu Shigenao (1606-1664), who invited skilled iron craftsmen from Kyoto to his castle, located in what is now Morioka in Tohoku’s Iwate Prefecture, so that they could make kettles to be used in tea ceremonies in the region.

Tea made from water boiled in a Nanbu iron kettle has a characteristically mild and subtle flavor, slightly sweetened by the iron that seeps into the water.

Local craftsmen customized the production of iron not just for ceremonial kettles, but also for other practical applications including armor, agricultural tools and daily cooking utensils.

One particularly exquisite kettle on display is a conical black iron tea kettle that dates back to the 19th century. Decorated with hobnail-like protuberances known as arare “hailstone pattern,” it has no spout and is fitted with a lid so that water could be scooped out with a wooden ladle. Hand-crafted by a local artisan, it shows off its origins through its refined and elegantly simple design.

Woodwork is another prominent craft of Tohoku, with the region’s wild-cherry bark being highly prized for its aesthetic qualities, which include its attractive wood-grain patterning. The tradition of using cherry bark for objects, known as kaba zaiku, originated in the town of Kakunodate, purportedly during the 1780s, when a mountain priest living in northern Akita Prefecture introduced his woodwork to a samurai retainer of the Satake Kita family who ruled the town. Thanks to the patronage of the Satake Kitas, the craft flourished, becoming one of the mainstay side jobs of low-ranking samurai in his domain. Since samurai retainers were on a fixed income in the form of an annual rice stipend, many needed such work to supplement their income.

Once the cherry bark was scraped down and cut to size, it was glued to a wooden object, rubbed down and then repeatedly polished until it developed beautiful reddish-purple hues and a rich luster. Collectors coveted these objects not just for their color, but for the natural cracks and gnarled patterns in their grain.

Kakunodate wild-cherry bark products included men’s pill boxes and tobacco cases, and then, as the craft proliferated during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), tea caddies, stationery boxes and jewelry cases, superlative examples of which are on display.

In addition to the array of craft pieces is a collection of dynamic woodblock prints by Shiko Munakata (1903-1975), which are on display in the main room of the exhibition. Born in Aomori Prefecture, Munakata, who is renowned for his heartfelt depictions of local traditions, drew vivid sketches of the daily lives of the Tohoku people, which in the context of the show are particularly poignant.

Included is “In Praise of the Tohoku District” (1937), an impressively large-scale monochromatic woodblock print, displayed as a pair of six-panel folding screens, depicting bodhisattva, monks, and others praying to the Amida Buddha and calling for his protection. The all-knowing and powerful Buddha sits at the center of the composition, absorbing the misfortunes of the people and deflecting evil. Such a work resonates, as we remember the great tragedy that struck the Tohoku region last year and the incredible resilience and spirit of its people who continue to rebuilt the region today.

“Tohoku Crafts and Shiko Munakata” at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum runs till June 10; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.mingeikan.or.jp.