Tour Fukushima's Traditional Crafts and Specialties - Decorate Aizu Lacquerware and Akabeko, and Try Local Whisky!

Fukushima Prefecture, located in the southern part of Japan's Tohoku region, is known for its rich natural environment and ancient samurai culture. It is also famous for traditional crafts such as “akabeko” figures and Aizu lacquerware, as well as specialties like whisky. To deepen our understanding of the region, we joined a guided Fukushima tour and tried our hand at making traditional crafts and seeing the magic behind local products. If you’re keen to uncover the real Fukushima through a local tour, read on!

*This article was sponsored by the Fukushima Prefecture Tourism & Local Products Association.

What Kind of Place Is Fukushima Prefecture?

The first thing that might pop into your mind when hearing "Fukushima" is the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. However, that was over 10 years ago, and the prefecture has now largely recovered and offers a variety of attractions, such as bountiful nature, beautiful landscapes, scrumptious cuisine, and unique traditions and culture.

Fukushima Prefecture is located in the south of the Tohoku region, around 200 kilometers north of Tokyo. It is the third largest prefecture after Hokkaido and Iwate, and is divided into three areas - Nakadori, Aizu, and Hamadori - by a mountain range running north to south. These three areas differ not only in topography, but also in numerous other features including climate, economy, culture, dialect, and scenery. The mild weather of Nakadori allows for a flourishing natural environment, perfect for growing fruits like peaches, grapes, and apples. Aizu, on the other hand, is home to many famous landmarks such as Lake Inawashiro, the Bandai Highlands, Ouchijuku, and Tsurugajo Castle. Finally, there's Hamadori, whose seaside location lends itself to fresh seafood cuisine.

The tour that we joined spanned three cities across Fukushima: Nihonmatsu and Koriyama in the Nakadori region, and Aizuwakamatsu in the Aizu region. Each has its own history and traditions, naturally influencing the local crafts, and through hands-on experiences with these crafts, we were exposed to the culture, geography, and other fascinating elements we likely would have missed!

How to Get to Fukushima

From Overseas: Currently, there are no direct international flights to Fukushima Airport, so we recommend taking the train, bullet train, or renting a car from Sendai International Airport or Narita International Airport to get to Fukushima.

From Tokyo: Take the shinkansen bullet train to Fukushima Station (1.5 hours), then transfer to whichever part of the prefecture you plan to visit. Alternatively, you can take Tobu Railway's Limited Express Revaty from Asakusa Station, which will take you to Aizu-Tajima Station in around 3 hours and 10 minutes. From there, take the Aizu Railway to your destination.



Making Lampshades at Nihonmatsu’s Washi Traditional Crafts Gallery

“Washi” paper is a traditional Japanese craft that was recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2014. These papermaking methods were introduced from China in the 7th century, but unlike the Chinese, who use hemp, the Japanese use “kozo” (paper mulberry) as the main material.

Washi paper flourished in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, from the mid-Heian Period (approx. 1,000 years ago), eventually resulting in the creation of one of the region's traditional crafts, “Kamikawasaki” washi paper. At the time, this paper was very popular among nobility and was often the paper of choice for novels. In order to learn more about the washi-making process, we stepped into the Washi Traditional Crafts Gallery in Nihonmatsu, who produce and sell Kamikawasaki washi paper. In addition to the workshop, the gallery displays lampshades, artwork, and other items made from washi and more.

Here, Kamikawasaki washi is entirely handmade using genuine kozo. Tree trunks are collected and steamed, then the bark is peeled off and scraped to remove any black bits, after which it is soaked in water then boiled. This purifying process results in a kind of pulp called "shiryo," which is mixed with water and “neri” (a viscous liquid taken from the aibika plant that prevents the raw materials from hardening). Once these materials are prepared, artisans can begin shaping the washi paper.

After observing and trying our hand at the satisfyingly slimy washi-making process, we were given pre-made, “blank” washi lampshades to decorate. To save time, the craftspeople make these spherical lampshades in advance, which are 11 cm in diameter and have a slightly rough texture and stylish, sophisticated appearance.

Before decorating, take a look at the examples displayed in the gallery for inspiration, which include colored paper patterns like “momiji” maple leaves, “sakura” cherry blossoms, and “kiku” chrysanthemum. To decorate the lampshades, all we had to do was cut out the patterns we wished to use and paste them on. Though simple, the true test of skill lay in how the patterns were arranged!

Once we finished decorating, we put our lampshades in a special illuminated display box for a photo session! Afterwards, many of us used them to decorate our rooms, while others gave it to a friend as a one-of-a-kind souvenir.

Paint Fox Masks at the 300-Year-Old Doll Workshop “Dekoyashiki Daikokuya”

Dekoyashiki is a store in the Nishida district of Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, that specializes in handmade wooden dolls. It is also where local “Miharu folkcrafts,” such as “Miharu-goma” wooden horses and “Miharu hariko” papier-mâché dolls, were first made. The surrounding area was once an artisan village making papier-mâché dolls with bamboo or hollow wood, a craft that started around 300 years ago.

During our tour, we were welcomed into Dekoyashiki's gorgeous doll workshop, which had all kinds of intriguing crafts on display, such as Miharu hariko, traditional masks, daruma dolls, and even dolls based on the 12 Zodiac signs.

Our session focused on fox masks, which are often used in traditional Japanese performing arts like Noh and Kagura. Foxes have also been worshiped at Inari shrines throughout Japan as agricultural deities since ancient times, as they often kill rats and protect crops. For this, they are particularly revered in the Koriyama area, famous for its sericulture and silk weaving industries.

On the second floor of the 114-year-old traditional homestead, which is where the doll-making workshops are held, we were provided with a plain white papier-mâché fox mask, paint, and brushes. From here, we were given the freedom to paint the masks to our own tastes.

For inspiration, one of the artisans - Hashimoto - showed us two painted fox mask examples, one male and the other female. Each had their own unique motifs that we could freely copy, but we were warned that the male mask would be a tad more difficult. Of course, there's nothing stopping you from creating your own design!

Painting a fox mask is harder than you might think! You’ll need to be fairly dextrous to get all the little details right and make both sides of the mask even. But don't worry if you make a mistake, as you can simply erase it with white paint. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the process of making your very own authentic, traditional fox mask!

Once we were done, we took our painted fox masks to a nearby shrine for a photoshoot. The silent, lush green space bristled with a mystical atmosphere, allowing us to feel the strange yet powerful spiritual force of the masks.

Aizu Lacquerware Painting at the Museum of Aizu Lacquerware Traditions “Suzuzen”

The Aizu region of Fukushima is one of Japan's top four lacquerware production areas, following Kanazawa (Ishikawa Prefecture), Echizen (Fukui Prefecture), and Kishu (Wakayama Prefecture). It all started in the 16th century thanks to the efforts of the feudal lord of Aizu, Ujisato Gamo. Though the industry was affected by warfare at one point, it made a speedy recovery and eventually became the top lacquerware area in the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Aizu lacquerware products are still widely distributed across Japan as well as exported overseas, contributing greatly to the development of the Aizuwakamatsu region.

On the tour, we visited the Museum of Aizu Lacquerware Traditions “Suzuzen,” where we learned about the history of Aizu lacquerware and experienced lacquerware painting under the guidance of a renowned craftsman. Suzuzen is a multipurpose complex with the “Lore Storehouse” telling the history of the craft, the “Art Storehouse” displaying works by master craftspeople, and the “Experience Storehouse,” where visitors can enjoy Aizu lacquerware painting for themselves.

After learning more about the craft’s history and how it's made, we were given a demonstration by one of the craftsmen before attempting it ourselves on a “maki-e” plate, which is one of the most common forms of lacquerware art. None of us had done anything quite like it before, so we used a real maple leaf rather than our own design, which was far easier.

First, we selected the maple leaf we wanted, then we applied a heavy coat of lacquer on one side and laid it down on the plate, placing a sheet of paper on top and pressing down to ensure an even print. Once the lacquer was firmly applied, we used maki-e powder (colored or metal powder) to dress it up from a wide selection of shimmering colors. The craftsman then helped us brush away the excess powder to reveal a sparkling maple leaf lacquerware plate underneath!

(If you want to add another pattern, all you have to do is pick a different-sized leaf or use the same leaf on another part of the plate. Keep in mind that doing the latter means the lacquer will get thinner, so you'll have to apply more force for it to properly adhere.)

The craftsman also taught us how to make other designs like cherry blossoms and dragonflies. His paintings were clean and sharp, with the cherry blossoms in particular coming alive when painted with color. As it is difficult to correct mistakes, lacquer painting requires a skilled and delicate hand with great care.

While far from easy, under the attentive care of the craftspeople, we managed to successfully paint our lacquerware plates. The vibrant maple leaves stood out starkly against the glossy black backgrounds, glittering elegantly under the light. It was a rewarding experience, and we couldn’t wait to take them home to show off!

Admire Tsurugajo Castle and Paint Your Own Akabeko

The pristine white Tsurugajo Castle is a must-see for any traveler visiting Fukushima Prefecture. It was originally built in 1384, and was the symbol of the Aizu Domain until the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868).

We learned a lot about the castle on the tour with the help of pictures depicting its appearance throughout history. For example, the most striking characteristic of the castle is its red tile roof. When the castle was rebuilt in 1965, the tiles were black, however, they were replaced in 2011 with the original red design to combat the region's low temperatures and heavy snowfall. Regular tiles are prone to freezing and cracking in such conditions, which is why the new tiles were glazed with iron to prevent moisture from seeping in, giving them their reddish hue. Tsurugajo Castle is the only castle in all of Japan with a red tile roof, making it stand out vividly amongst the rest.

We visited Tsurugajo Castle on a pleasant and clear autumn morning. The castle's visage painted a majestic scene, soaring high into the sky. While showing us around, our guide quizzed us on Japanese castles and samurai, helping us deepen our knowledge of local history and culture.

After touring the castle, we dropped into the nearby Tsurugajo Kaikan to join an “akabeko” painting workshop. These adorable red cattle figures are the symbol of Fukushima, and you’ll frequently spot them while traveling across the prefecture.

The name “akabeko” is derived from “aka,” meaning “red” in standard Japanese, and “beko,” meaning “cow” in the local Aizu dialect. Their origin starts about 1,200 years ago, when cattle were used to transport lumber for building temples. Many of them fell over in the process, but the red cattle stayed strong. Afterwards, people began associating red cattle with good luck, and today, local families still celebrate children's birthdays with akabeko toys.

At the workshop, we were given a blank akabeko with a brush, paint, and wet tissue. There was also a finished akabeko on the table for reference. The surface of the akabeko is smooth, making it far easier to paint than the previously introduced lacquerware, and even if a mistake was made, all we had to do was wipe it away with a wet tissue. It was a great opportunity to recreate a traditional craft with our own unique spin!

These were the final results. Aren't they adorable? There’s no doubt we’ll continue to treasure them as meaningful souvenirs reminding us of our time in Fukushima.

Learn How the Japanese Make Whisky at Sasanokawa Shuzo's Asaka Distillery

Did you know that Japan is one of the five largest whisky producing countries in the world, ranking together with the United States, Scotland, Ireland, and Canada? Needless to say, you shouldn't miss checking out a whisky distillery when you come to Japan!

During our tour, we stopped at Sasanokawa Shuzo, home to the oldest local-established whisky distillery in the Tohoku region. Founded in 1765, they initially made sake and didn't begin producing whisky until after WWII, and in 2016, they opened the Asaka Distillery to carry on their traditions into a new era of Fukushima whisky-making.

First up, we toured the distillery, which houses all sorts of fascinating equipment such as the grain mill and two large copper distillers. Listening to our guide's explanation, we quickly got a grasp of how everything worked, which ranged from the cleaning, processing, saccharifying, and fermenting of the raw ingredients, to the distillation and storage for aging.

Our next stop was the storage area, where hundreds of wooden casks filled with aging whisky were lined up. Asaka Distillery uses many different types of wooden casks to produce a variety of flavors. In addition to oak, the most common, they have wine casks, cognac casks, port wine casks, and even Japanese “mizunara” oak casks - a rarity that can only be found in Japan. The type of wooden cask it was aged in is a significant factor in determining the final price of the finished whisky, making it a vital part of the process.

While the distillery tour was endlessly fascinating, the highlight was getting to sample the brews! We kicked off with sake before diving into a selection of whiskies, including the premium Yamazakura Single Malt Whisky, which had an alcohol content of around 50%, and the Yamazakura Long Aged Plum Wine Bourbon Barrel, a splendid brew that carried the acidity and fragrance of plums to help tone down the whisky burn. The latter is perfect for those who aren't used to strong alcohol, but who want to make the most of the experience. Another notable addition was the Yamazakura Black Label, a blended whisky suited to highball cocktails popular at Japanese “izakaya” pubs.

Though some of us were new to whisky, we quickly found ourselves wanting to learn more about how it's made and the other varieties after the tour. We even went ahead and bought some whisky as souvenirs! There's nothing quite like buying whisky from an actual distillery, after all. If you have the chance to visit Fukushima, we’d definitely recommend making the journey to Sasanokawa Shuzo!

An Unforgettable Fukushima Tour

All the interesting and fun experiences on this Fukushima tour helped us deepen our understanding of the region's culture, history, and people. By engaging in authentic slices of the culture itself, such as traditional craft workshops and more, our trip became a lot more meaningful and memorable. The entire tour experience, including all the interactions with our fabulous guides, will doublessly grow into nostalgic memories that forever spark excitement. If you've fallen even a bit in love with the region after reading our article, why not plan a trip to Fukushima for yourself?



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Tohoku Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Nguyen Loan
Vietnamese currently living in Tokyo. Having lived in Japan for two years now, I hope to continue exploring new regions and learning more about the people of Japan. Through my articles on tsunagu Japan, I hope to impart my own experiences in this country and help people learn more about Japan.
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