Kokeshi and Toji

Somehow I've been attracted to Kokeshi lately... Kokeshi is a small wooden doll with a big round head and thin straight body. 

Here is a little bit of a history...

It is said that the production of Kokeshi started in the late Edo period (Edo period ended in 1868) in Tohoku region of Japan. 

Many craftsman started to live in Hot spring towns where the local rice farmers and fishermen would spend a long period of time, healing their tired bodies from the hard labour(=TOJI) Kokeshi became a popular souvenir
 for the farmers to bring home from TOJI towns (=TOJI-BA) 

It was believed the red dye of Kokeshi would protect people from small pox.  Cute dolls in little girls' shape were symbol of "recuperation" and protection. Kokeshi, originally was a toy for small children. So Kokeshi's body was very slim so that small hands of the children could grab it. 

In my hometown, Hijiori Onsen,Yamagata pref. there is only one Kokeshi craftsman left. My neighbour Suzuki san makes such beautiful Kokeshi that he has received countless prizes. Hijiori Kokeshi is quite famous among traditional Kokeshi lovers. Many Hijiori Kokeshi contains dry beans inside the head so it's like a maracas! This also proves that Kokeshi was used as kids toy.  

After Taisho period(1912-1926), Kokeshi got super popular all over Japan. Simple, wooden Kokeshi was no longer an attractive toy for children. However, a lot of people started collecting Kokeshi for admiration. 

The big problem of Kokeshi was that when there is an earthquake, it falls! (This is what happend to all the Kokeshi dolls in my Ryokan at the time of huge earthquake in March and April)

I found an interesting New Kokeshi that took advantage of its "disadvantage". These high tech Kokeshi flashes automatically when it falls :-D  Great idea. What is amazing is that these aren't just cheap Kokeshi. Authentic traditional Kokeshi dolls. 
Nowadays it is hard for the Kokeshi craftsman to maintain the living just by selling Kokeshi. Kokeshi is not as popular as before ... :-( There are very few young people who want to take over the craftsmaking.

But I see that now Kokeshi is loved by many foreign nationals. I counted about 70 facebook groups of Kokeshi. 

There are new Kawaii shapes and designs❤ 

I really hope Kawaii Kokeshi Lovers would start new Kokeshi Fever in Japan! 


Hijiori Onsen Report by ALEX

check out the video with Alex's interview !



An Evening at Hijiori Onsen

   I am lucky in that my job affords me the opportunity to do a great variety of things. Most of my days are spent in the office, slaving away at my desk, but every once in awhile I find myself on a business trip that takes me skiing, picking fruit (one in the basket, two in my mouth), or in the case of a recent trip, staying the night in a storied hot springs town.

              Having spent the last 6 years of my life traveling back and forth to Japan (sometimes physically, often mentally) I have always known that Japan is famous for its hot springs. Unfortunately, every time I came to Japan I was either too busy or too far away from good hot springs to experience them. That all changed this past year as I found myself here in Yamagata, which I quickly learned was full of hot springs. As part of my job I often translate tourism-related material, so in addition to friends telling me about all the wonderful places they had been, I learned that Yamagata is the only prefecture in Japan where each municipality has its own hot springs, and that each of these springs boasts its own unique mineral contents and health benefits.

              At a work event one day I happened to meet Rimiko Murai, a native of Hijiori Onsen, which is one of Yamagata's oldest hot springs villages. I was amazed at how much she was overflowing with both enthusiasm about her home town, and desire for me to come and experience it myself. The timing was perfect, as Hijiori has been looking to revitalize interest in the old practice of tōji in both locals and visitors from around the country and world.

              Tōji is a tradition where farmers, after having worked hard in the fields through the spring, summer, and winter months, would retire to a hot spring village during the winter, and spend their days eating the rice they had harvested in the fall and soaking in the waters. These months of rest would allow them to return to the fields the following spring rejuvenated and revitalized. In modern times the number of people who can take off months at a time to spend at a hot springs village has fallen dramatically, and this tradition is rapidly being forgotten. Even if you aren't able to spend months at a time, a week spent relaxing and soaking in the healing waters of a hot spring is said to have remarkable health benefits.

              Rimiko invited me to come visit and experience her town's hot springs for myself, and also to participate in their yearly festival for the opening of the springs. This year is Hijiori's 1204th birthday – a truly astounding number, and it's almost unfathomable to think of people visiting this hot spring back in the 800's. I of course  accepted Rimiko's offer, and was soon planning my business trip to the onsen! Unfortunately, I was only able to convince my bosses to let me stay one night, so I wasn't able to experience the full effects of the tōji experience. I will have to wait for the day I do not hold an office job for this!

              When I was picked up at the train station, the first thing I noticed was how far Hijiori was away from nearby towns and other signs of civilization. It took 40 minutes of driving through beautiful mountain passes and plateaus before we began to descend into a sleepy-looking town nestled in a small valley surrounded by mountains. Rimiko told us that Hijiori was nestled in an old volcanic crater, which is why it is both ringed by mountains and replete with hot springs. The scenery was so beautiful, I could hardly believe my eyes.

              Soon after I arrived at the traditional Japanese ryokan, Miura-ya, where I would be staying for the evening. I was greeted by the family who owned and operated the inn with nervous but genuine smiles, as I was their first foreign guest. They led me up to my room, which looked to be something out of a Studio Ghibli film – my particular ryokan had tatami floors and the walls were all sliding doors – it was filled with the flavor of old Japan. After setting down my bag, I was soon presented with a dinner that made my eyes go wide.

              The food was delicious! I have always been a fan of traditional Japanese cuisine, and this meal did not disappoint me! My favorite food was of course the sashimi, which melted in my mouth with a burst of flavor. I unfortunately had to eat my food with a purpose, as the pre-festival event was about to start down on the single main street of the town.

              The evening's events revolved around a procession of town residents who, in their pilgrim garb, walked through the village carrying torches and lighting braziers, bathing the town in the warm glow of open flame. I followed the procession, and the entire circle through Hijiori took only about 20 minutes.

 After the procession I got the chance to interact with some of the local Hijiori residents – the community seemed to be quite strong, as the village is small enough for everyone to know everyone. It was fun meeting so many bright new people who have a love for life, and I look forward to going back and seeing them all again. But as I planned to be up early the next morning, I eventually excused myself and went off to go to sleep in my room, on my comfortable futon.

              I had been told by Rimiko about a morning market that happens every morning on the main street of Hijiori. This is actually a picture of my ryokan, but it's quite possible that the thing that catches the eye the most is the carefully arranged fresh produce that is covering the side of the street. I love people-watching, so I bought a coffee and a hard-boiled egg from a street vendor's tiny stand and simply enjoyed watching people enjoy the crisp morning air. On my way back to the my room I bought a big container of shitake mushrooms, which was both inexpensive and incredibly delicious. I was immediately jealous that this mroning market happened every day, when my local farmer's market in Yamagata City only takes place once every two weeks! Another thing you will notice in this picture is that many people are wearing geta, the traditional Japanese wooden sandals. Wearing these is not only fun, but actually rather comfortable. Every ryokan has a collection of geta in their entryway that are free for anyone to use – and if you end up at another ryokan for its hot springs, or somewhere else in the city, you just leave your geta there, as the entire town exchanges them freely. I thought that was pretty cool!

              After walking up and down the street, I decided to venture a little further down the road and make a quick climb up the side of one of the mountains surrounding Hijiori. There I found a wonderful tranquil area slightly above the town, and wasted away an hour looking for a four-leaf clover (didn't find one!).

              After a leisurely walk back to my room, I had about a half an hour before it was time for breakfast, and I was finally able to check out the hot spring itself. As it was still about 7:30 in the morning, and most Japanese people bathe at night, I had Murai-ya's tiny men's bath all to myself. The water was some of the murkiest I had ever seen, meaning it was full of healing minerals. After washing off I stepped into the water, and was happy to find it to be the absolute perfect temperature. At the time I couldn't have imagined a more relaxed morning than strolling through a tiny street market and walking through the woods, but I soon realized that I was wrong. Even a 5-minute soak left me feeling clean, refreshed, and most importantly, revitalized. It is never too difficult for me to see why the Japanese enjoy their hot springs so much! I had to cut my soak a little short though, as it was almost time for breakfast.

              Breakfast was absolutely delicious, and even though I really enjoyed the dumpling soup, my favorite this time was the succulent fish and the sweetened vegetables that accompanied it. I can't even imagine being able to eat this food for a week or a month at a time.. it would be too good!

              Finally the time had arrived for my visit's main event: participating in the main festival. I traveled to the village center to don the traditional white garb of a mountain ascetic, and prepared myself to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime event.

              I was designated to help carry one of two jizo, small images of deities that are made from solid granite, that represent the Shinto gods that reside in the area and watch over the waters of the hot-springs. It was obvious to me that the entire village depends on the hot springs for its economic livelihood – Hijiori is mostly made up of ryokan, small souvenir and general goods shops, and a small number of other basic businesses, all that support the tourism industry. The statues are placed on a small palanquin that allows 4 people to carry it, and I was soon helping three of the friends I had made the night before carry the statue down towards one side of the town.


There we stopped at a small monument dedicated to the source of the river running through the middle of the village and its hot springs waters and received a blessing from the town's Shinto priest. We drank a little ceremonial sake, and made our way back to the town for an opening ceremony. There some village officials and religious officials made speeches telling about the importance of the day, and soon it was time for the main event.

              We began our walk down the street from one end of Hijiori to the other, cheered on all of the way by all of the villagers and guests, who were lining the sides of the street. As we walked by the residents came up and deposited some change in a collection box next to each idol, making their offering to the gods of the hot springs. They would also bring a small bucket of hot spring water with them, and ladle some over the head of the idol. It was amazing to see elderly ladies help even elderlier ladies travel the 3 feet from the sidewalk to the road, throw their few coins into the box, ladle some water, and bow their heads in a solemn prayer.

              The water was not only thrown on the idols, but it seems like one of the most important traditions of the festival was to throw as much water as possible on the pilgrims carrying them as well. I certainly got a few facefulls of it! The water was warm at first, but soon began to evaporate, cooling us off in the hot summer sun.

              There were a couple times along the way where we stopped, set the jizo down on the ground, and rotated a long strand of beads around the two idols, eventually calling on visitors and residents alike to help us with this ritual.

              The winding road eventually led to a community center on the opposite side of town where we set down the jizo for one last time, received a last blessing and purification from the Shinto priest, and made our way inside to discuss how much of a success the event had been.

              After all was said and done, the festival incorporated all of the things that make me love Japan so much. There was camaraderie with my fellow participants, friendship with all of the observers, observing ancient traditions that have continued for hundreds (and sometimes thousands!) of years, and a reverence for the power of nature that provides us all, ultimately, with the lives we hold so dear.

              I left Hijiori Onsen feeling refreshed and able once again to tolerate the trivialities of daily life. I also left Hijiori Onsen having gained an acute appreciation for the tiny village, its people, and its culture. I plan on visiting Hijiori many more times before I leave Japan, and will recommend it to all of my friends if they are looking for a place to get away from the world in comfort for a weekend. Until then, I will have to make due with the wonderful memories that I have of the village and its festivals.

Alex Ciorba


Onsen Delivery in Ishinomaki

Today, we delivered Hijiori Onsen and Akakura Onsen to Ishinomaki. It was a big success. 

Young Ryokan owners met early in the morning and scooped up onsen water into a huge tank on the back of a pick up truck. 

Now we are on the road!

but,,, it didn't take long for us to realize carrying heavy water tank was a quite a task! Especially when we got closer to Ishinomaki, the road got bumpy and driving fast was impossible. After 4 hours of long journey, we arrived at Ishinomaki, Yawata district.  

It had been quite a long time since I set foot in Ishinomaki. And I was positively surprised how clean it looked. Most of the rubble was gone from the main street and some houses were already being rebuilt. 

Soon we found big sign that says "ゆ" meaning, hot bath. This is our destination!

This free shower and bath is run by an NPO called "On the Road"<http://www.saigaishien.jp/>

There is one shower, and 3 separate clean bathrooms. Each bathroom has a good size bath tub and shampoo and soap! 

After pouring Onsen water in each bathtub, we talked to the locals and the volunteers. There is no electricity in this area yet. Right next to the bathing spot was a shelter, former kindergarten where and about 6 evacuees are living. 

About 20-30 people come to use this bath every day, and they were all looking forward to having authentic hot spring today. We were very happy that we were able to do something positive for the people affected by Tsunami. 

We promised them that we were coming back !! That would be the least we could do...


Hijiori Light Project started!

"Hijiori Light Project" , or "Hijiori no Hi" in Japanese, stared 5 years ago to commemorate the 1200year anniversary of Hijiori Onsen. 

Students of Tohoku University of Art & Design (TUAD) are the creators of these amazing lanterns. Each students spend a couple of days in Hijiori, asking the hotel and shop owners about their history to get inspiration for the design of the lantern. 

The lantern itself is made by the artists in Shonai area (Yamagata pref.)

This year, we were waiting for this event with special sentiments. 

Many of the TUAD students have experienced the earthquake. Some of their families lost their house, or loved ones by Tsunami. 

These lanterns are memorials for those who we have lost. We appreciate the beauty of the light even more than past years.  

Look at these lanterns. 
Hijiori Onsen streets are decorated with 35 gorgeous lanterns.

Some are breathtakingly beautiful. So intricate that I wonder how many hours they must have spent to complete the work! There are lanterns with a lot of vivid colors, others are drawn just by pencil.  

This is our proud、"cafe & bar Hijiori Black".
Hijiori Young people and TUAD students opened a bar on the street only in summer. Menu is Canned Beer, Pineapple Cider, RAMUNE, and iced coffee :)

Last night was a busy night, serving guests and battling with invisible mosquitoes! :-b 


Hijiori 1204th anniversary

July 14th was Hijiori Onsen's 1204th Anniversary!

On the eve of the anniversary, Hijiori men in white uniform marched the town with the torch, chanting " Namu Jizo Bosatsu". Jizo bosatsu is "
Ksitigarbha" a guardian of our hometown and hot spring. 

On the morning of the anniversary, Hijiori men in white uniform carried 2 Jizo (one female and one male) to the Hijiori dam to offer prayers to god. We had a ritual of scooping hot spring from one barrel to another.

This year, for the first time, Hijiori community invited 3 men from outside to join as a carrier of Jizo. Alex from USA, Jesse from Finland, and a Japanese guy from Sendai joined the event!

There was another thing new. This year, we had "Mochi Maki". "Mochi" is a rice cake. In many parts of Japan, when building a new house, we do this ritual. The owner of the house throw away lots of mochi, some money and snacks from top of the roof.

It was so exciting to see many kids and elderly people running after mochi! I was too scared to go into the crowd, though... :-b

After "Mochi Maki" was the highlight of the anniversary.  Men in white walked around the town, and the audience splashed hot spring water at them. It is believed that pouring hot water on top of Jizo gives you protection from evil and makes you healthy. 


Many people were waiting in front of their house with a bucket of nice warm hot spring.

The Jizo march has finished. After taking off totally wet white uniform and getting dressed, Hijiorians celebrated the success of the event with lots of beer and sake :-)

Alex and Jesse, making a speach. They really liked the event! I was so happy and proud that they were able to experience our amazing culture. They appeared on NHK TV news that night!!

Arigato Alex, Jesse! 


Kurokawa Onsen❤

4 young Hijiori Ryokan owners and I were invited to one of the most famous and successful Onsen in Japan, "Kurokawa Onsen" in Kumamoto pref. Kyushu!!  

Kurokawa Onsen was just one of the regular Onsen towns. But now it is one of the most famous Onsen with Roten-buro or Open Bath in almost all the Ryokans. What's amazing is that the Ryokan owners built the open bath with their own hands!

Minami Oguni-town is also registered as  "One of the Most Beautiful villages in Japan". We found a gorgeous bus stop with thatched roof. Guess what? These bus stops were built with the financial contribution from the locals!!! One of the villagers told me " If we ask our municipal government to build a bus stop, they will make a cheap looking bus stop. We didn't want that".  

Kurokawa Onsen is so beautifully and carefully decorated. Ryokan colors are unified, almost all the buildings and bridges and even the vending machines are either black or dark brown. 

The piece of wood in the picture above is like a ticket for taking a bath. You can buy this "Tegata" in any Ryokan. It costs 1,200yen, and  you can go to any of the Ryokan and enjoy their bath. This system was so successful that Kurokawa became one of the most popular hot springs in Japan!   Many other Onsen towns imitated the system including Hijiori but it wasn't a success. It is extremely important that every Ryokan owners and workers truly understand the concept and the purpose of the "Yumeguri" system. Otherwise it won't work. 

2nd day rain was poring in Kurokawa Onsen. We had a meeting with Minami Oguni-machi mayor and Kurokawa Onsen union leader. They both told us about the history and current agenda of Kurokawa Onsen.  

We had such lovely lunch at local "Farmer's pension"!

The picture above on the left is "The Most Embarrasing Onsen In Japan!" "Manganji Onsen". The bath tub is literally in the river where everybody can see! The rain was so hard and there was nobody bathing this day :-b, but it was the coolest Onsen I've ever seen.   

At night, Kurokawa Young Ryokan owners invited us to a local bar and we drank lots of beer, Sake and Shochu :-) and talked about our future~~~

Kurokawa Onsen is such a lovely place with enthusiastic people. It gave me an opportunity to observe and deliberate the problems Hijiori is facing. Kurokawa Onsen is having a big success and we can learn so much from them. But at the same time, this trip made me realize how special Hijiori Onsen is. It is not as popular as Kurokawa, but doesn't mean that it is not as attractive :-)

Long History is one of the special characteristics of Hijiori. July 14th is Hijiori's 1204th Birthday!!!


Hijiori Fun Night

I'm very happy to say that finally the guests are coming back to my hometown, Hijiori Onsen. April and May was terrible with very few guests and we all feared for the future of Hijiori, but this month, it seems that there are more "Okyaku san" than last two month. 

Hijiori is putting a lot of effort to entertain our guests! From June to August, we have some kind of events every weekend. These are a few examples.

The first pictures are from "Mukashi Gatari" "Folk Tale telling" about 2 weeks ago. This building is an old post office. It was built in Taisho period, in the early 1900s. It's such a charming little building. Inside the post office, we had a story telling night. Mr. Kumagai, local folklorist told us a few short stories about Hijiori, and some funny stories from old times. All the guests seemed to love it!

And these pictures are from last Saturday when we had "Okami's Dance"! "Okami" is the female Ryokan owner, and in Japanese Ryokan, Okami are the "faces" of Ryokan. We call them "Okami-san" with respect. 

In Hijiori, we have 22 Okamisan in each Ryokan. They have "Okami's group" and they practice dancing every month. Last Saturday, they danced in front of the old post office. I was really happy to see so many guests! There must have been more than 100 audience. All smiling and happy (with the Sake we served for free??)
After Okami's dance, they invited the audience to join and dance together. It was such a fun night!

This Saturday, July 2nd, we'll have a special concert by a pro-keyboard player. Next weekend, another Folk tale night... 

Here is the Hijiori event calender (Sorry all in Japanese)