People came to Naruko in droves. In that same period, 1965-1970, there was a hippie movement in Japan, which meant there were many university age backpackers, known as “crabs” because of their large packs. So many of them dropped by the shop, with a hastily scrawled postcard asking her if she could bring it to the post office, she would lend them a stamp. It happened so often, the Postmaster approached her and asked if she could sell stamps, to the hippies because so many were passing through.. the kokeshi shop is still a licensed postal branch to this day for that reason.
In the late-1960s, there was a Kokeshi Boom. Like the Pet Rock, an inanimate collectible object that everyone had to have, kokeshi became the national craze. People would amass huge collections of kokeshi. Salarymen were even quitting their jobs in the cities to come out to the rural areas to join the lucrative trade in kokeshi. The ryokan and general stores would add a shelf to sell kokeshi because people couldn’t get enough. Takahashi-san himself would work all night to keep up with the demand. Between the massive influx of tourists and the kokeshi fad, things were quite plum for a few years, about 20 years.. until the mid-1980s.
The Japanese economy then took a dive and by the early 90s was mired in a recession that is still lingering. As Takahashi-san and his wife agreed, things have never been the same.
Back in the early post-WWII days, as the town was transitioning from a traditional toji destination to a vacation hotspot, there were geisha. You could hear their geta clip-clopping in the streets. There were geisha, there were prostitutes. In those years immediately after the war, there were many widows, single women with families to raise, so many women would come to Naruko to work (as prostitutes). [We had previously met a man in the nearby city of Furukawa who had grown up in Naruko and was so glad to leave. As a JHS student, he can remember the hookers beckoning from windows. So, while the town looks to its traditional past, it seems to be conveniently looking beyond the dark years of the early 1980s when the town was full of prostitution and pachinko.]
As we asked her about her favorite place, she told us her love of haiku. Basho passed through Naruko and wrote a poem there. It was her feeling that back in the day, just toji was enough to attract people. Even those hippie university students used to come for the baths alone (although it probably helped that the baths in those days were mixed gender!) She admits that the town needs more than only baths to attract people. Naruko lacks variety: other than nature and the baths, there isn’t much to do. There are three closed pachinko parlors in Naruko, even the strip club is out of business. Other than the onsen, everything is going out of business. More entertainment for children, even a community pool, would be a draw. She admits that transportation remains a hurdle: when the shinkansen lines were laid, they bypassed Naruko entirely. The closed shinkansen station is in Furukawa. To get to Naruko, people need to transfer there to a local train, which takes an additional 30 minutes. It’s only 10 minutes from Sendai to Furukawa by shinkansen, but then another 30 minutes on the local train, which places Naruko firmly OFF the beaten path. The other problem is that once you are in Naruko, there is no good transportation. Public buses are infrequent and taxis are expensive. Masako-san herself is so generous, about 3 years ago she had 3 confused foreigners in the shop and she drove them all the way to the top of Onikoube.
When we asked her about her favorite location and she told us about Basho, we were therefore not surprised when she revealed plans to bundle the three of us into her car to show us the path that Basho himself walked all those centuries ago.
We bid her farewell to go to another appointment, then agreed to meet her later in the afternoon.
After finished our other interview, we went to a local convenience store for a late lunch. While inside, it began to pour. Maskao-san drove across the street to fetch us, a very kind gesture. Not only was she volunteering to be our guide, she went out of her way to do door-to-ddor service!
She truly does love Naruko and loves showing us why she thinks it is a special place. She drove us to the spot where Basho and his student stopped as they traversed Tohoku. When Basho and his student asked for a place to stay for the night, the homeowners were unaware that it was a famous poet on their doorstep, so they told him he could sleep in the barn. When Basho went to compose his haiku, he immortalized Naruko as the place where a barrier was put up to him, where he was bitten by insects, and where he was peed on by horses. So the name of the place and the name of the haiku is The Barrier of Pee, not really the most flattering description. Naruko always seems to have one extra little hurdle on the way to fame and success! Anyway, there is a haiku written by Basho right there.
After being bundled back into the car, she took us to a second spot, part of the path walked by Basho himself. There is a parking lot there, and it is across from the frequently visited Naruko Gorge Bridge, but the entrance is behind a restroom building and not well-marked at all. As she took us down a flight of washed out stairs, she was frustrated that the government doesn’t better maintain a path walked by Basho.
We walked into a hidden wonderland, overgrown and lush, with a stream running through it, all to ourselves. A few years ago in the 1980s, the government did try to play up the fact that Basho had passed through the town, but other than that one PR campaign, that was the only mention of this spot as important to Basho. She thinks PR efforts on behalf of Naruko are lacking.
As we followed in the footsteps of Basho 300 years prior, we were all impressed with Masako-san’s deep knowledge of the local flora, both names and uses, but she spoke in a high level of Japanese. Her love of poetry extends from composing haiku to being able to speak of the world in a poetic way, with a vocabulary not often encountered in a university graduate, but especially beautiful coming from the mouth of the wife of a kokeshi-maker we met on the side of the highway, in an often overlooked shop.
As we walked, she said it was powerful to show us this place, both for us and for herself, She feels she absorbs the energy of nature. She took us across the road to the famous Naruko Gorge Bridge, famous from many postcards.
She is 65, her husband is 70. Takahashi-san, whose father was a government official, had to apprentice to someone outside the family. He apprenticed with Masako-san’s uncle. In those days, you had to train for 5 years or 10 years, and lived with your master. At 15, Takahashi-san moved into Masako-san’s household, so they knew each other long before they were even married. Making sweet puppy eyes to each other over the rice bowl. It was like they were married a long time before they were even married. They have a very loving relationship and rather unique. Earlier, Takahashi-san had brought us all iced tea, and later more ice to keep it cool. It was the first time in Japan we had ever seen a man serve drinks to his wife and guests. He was very quiet, he just handed it over. Just a simple, loving gesture, the thing you see in a couple together for 50 years.
In every aspect of their being, they seem content with where they are. Takahashi-san says he enjoys nothing more than making his kokeshi. 55 years into it, he still takes pride in his work. Although Masako-san’s children may be far away and the shop isn’t doing as well as it was, she loves her husband and loves haiku and being a poet. So these two artistic souls, hidden away in a shop hidden right in the open, it was such a beautiful pair to meet and we were so glad to have met them. We never would have had the chance except that we were on foot and decided to stop and watch Takahashi-san while he was working. We were really glad to have stopped and were so touched by the generosity of Masako-san to take us around all day.
August 7, 2010