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Miyagi: A pond in the sky, and cheese from heaven

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Works of one-knife carving by Yasuhiro Ishibashi

By Kenichi Sato / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterZAO, Miyagi — The fog flowing along the mountain thickened, and green leaves visible through my front window looked blurred and whitish. Driving along the Zao Echo Line, a mountain sightseeing road connecting the town of Zao, Miyagi Prefecture, and Yamagata Prefecture, I entered into clouds halfway to the top of the mountain. I was disappointed, thinking that I’d have to give up on seeing the scenery from the summit.

However, the fog disappeared near the top and the sun came out. Was this a kindness from the Zao Daigongen deity enshrined in the Zao Mountain Range?

I parked the car in a parking lot and got out to see a magnificent view from an observation deck. Okama Crater, a symbol of Zao, is a crater lake with a diameter of about 325 meters surrounded by three mountains, including Mt. Katsutadake.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    An original Cheese House dish called Rakuronetto

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Visitors look at the Okama Crater, located in the highest area of the Zao Mountain Range. The color of the water’s surface changes according to the angle of the sunlight, with hues including blue and yellow-green. It’s therefore also called Goshikinuma, meaning five-color pond.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Eihiro Sato, a craftsman at the Ushizoan factory, carves a kokeshi doll.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

As I walked along a ridge, I saw the green shades of the lake’s surface change from moment to moment. The ground itself was black, white and reddish-brown in different places, illustrating the mountains’ history of repeatedly erupting.

The water surface is about 1,550 meters above sea level. The sea of clouds that I had passed through earlier spread out endlessly.

On the way to the foot of the mountain, I dropped by the Takimidai Waterfall Viewing Point. In front of the deck were the 181-meter-high Sankai Falls flowing down a three-tiered cliff. On the right side, I saw Fudo Falls.

Yoshiyuki Murakami, 32, an official of the Zao town tourism and industry association, told me an old tale: “A long time ago, a big eel in Fudo Falls was defeated by a large crab in the Sankai waterfall and was cut into three parts. The eel’s tail, one of the three parts, drifted to the Togatta hot spring town, and that’s why the hot spring is said to be good for leg muscles. ”

Togatta Spa serves as a base for sightseeing to Zao on the Miyagi Prefecture side. The hot spring was discovered 400 years ago and has a history as therapeutic bath and a base for Zao mountain worship. I sat in warm water in the Kami-no-yu, a public bathhouse in the quiet hot spring town, and the hot bath slowly restored my tired body.

The kokeshi doll industry in this spa town boasts a history of about 200 years. While 11 to 12 types of the traditional Japanese dolls have been passed down in various parts of the Tohoku region, Togatta is said to be the birthplace of kokeshi dolls.

In the past, visitors seeking hot-spring cures bought kokeshi dolls for their children and grandchildren. In recent years, female kokeshi aficionados have been attracting attention.

I visited the Ushizoan factory in the Shinchi district, where kokeshi factories are concentrated. Craftsman Eihiro Sato, 68, was working there. Among the characteristics of Togatta-type kokeshi dolls are the slightly large head compared to the body and eyes shaped like a crescent moon, while the kokeshi dolls made by his grandfather Ushizo have other characteristics such as a square-shaped head.

“I want to maintain the charm of the Ushizo-type dolls, but we have fewer customers compared to the time of the booming economy,” Sato said. The number of factories in the district declined to three from seven, he said. A shortage of successors and the aging of existing craftsmen are serious problems.

This spring, three new craftspeople began work after completing three years of training held by the town for developing kokeshi-doll craftsmen. I met one of them, 50-year-old Rika Komatsu, at the Miyagi Zao Kokeshi Museum. She moved to Miyagi Prefecture from Osaka when she was in her 20s, and worked as a manga artist. After her children grew up, she applied for the training program.

“When I was young, I lived in Britain for six months, where I was shocked to realize that I didn’t know about Japanese culture. I remembered that experience and wanted to start a second life,” she said.

After becoming independent, Komatsu learned from her master while producing a “welcoming kokeshi doll” to be placed at the entrance of a house. She made the doll because “I wanted to use kokeshi dolls to satisfy contemporary needs.”

The bottom of the doll is broadened so it won’t fall over easily, and it sits beautifully on its heels. I hoped a new wind will dispel the fog that is casting a shadow over the kokeshi industry.

The Zao Echo Line is passable from late April to around early November. To get to Okama Crater lake, you can use the toll road Zao High Line, which can be entered from the Zao Echo Line. Even when it’s sunny at the foot of the mountain, the area near the mountain top is sometimes cloudy.

It’s therefore up to luck whether you can see Okama, but you can check the weather conditions around the area via camera feeds that can be seen on Miyagi Prefecture’s website. Please pay attention to information about eruption risk.

Cheese is a popular food in Zao. The Zao Dairy Center, which has pastureland in the town, began producing natural cheese in 1980, when it was not well known in Japan. Zao cheese became a pioneer in regional brand cheese products, and its smooth-textured cream cheese is particularly popular.

At the Cheese House restaurant in the center, you can enjoy Rakuronetto (¥1,100 per person, served for two or more), an original dish produced based on Swiss cuisine.

“It’s like you’re making pizza toast and eating it,” said Shinichi Kasahara, 60, of the center. Mature gouda cheese with a rich flavor and milky mozzarella cheese are melted on an iron plate and put on bread with vegetables and bacon. I fully enjoyed the taste created by nature in the foot of Mt. Zao.

In the Togatta hot spring town, where the tradition of kokeshi dolls is rooted, the new craftwork of “Zao one-knife carving” has emerged.

Yasuhiro Ishibashi, 37, a sculptor who learned about Nara Prefecture’s one-knife carving techniques, moved to Zao in 2016 after getting married and opened a factory. It’s distinguished by its use of colors reminiscent of Japanese-style painting on the shapes, which boldly retain marks from their chisel carving.

The Manpugama pottery sells zodiac animals (¥3,780), teddy bears (¥5,400) and other products. The town’s local “Zaosama” character and seasonal festival dolls are carved at customers’ request.

Access: About two hours by the Tohoku Shinkansen line from Tokyo Station to Shiroishi-Zao Station, and 47 minutes by bus from the station to Togatta Spa.

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