Photo/IllutrationTakashi Iwama and his horse pull a log in Tono, Iwate Prefecture. (Taro Mizoguchi)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region is seeing a revival in traditional techniques and products that are more eco-friendly and “warm” than the machines that were replacing them.

Some of the skills and goods have grown in popularity among foreign consumers, paving the way for expansion to overseas markets.

FOREST RECONSTRUCTION

Takashi Iwama, 40, is involved in “bahan,” a traditional means of using horses to transport felled trees, in Tono, Iwate Prefecture, where the method is called “jidahiki.”

More than 100 people used to engage in bahan in Tono, but now only a few are involved in the industry. Their numbers started falling in the 1960s with the introduction of machinery.

Iwama became interested in horse logging and became a student of a bahan worker 18 years ago, when he took over his family’s farm and made charcoal.

After striking out on his own, Iwama established the Japan Horselogging Association with the assistance of the Iwate prefectural government and other parties to share his bahan skills.

Bahan does not damage mountains, unlike heavy machinery, which can quickly strip slopes, making it difficult to resuscitate the forests.

According to Iwama, 200 logging companies in Britain use horses because bahan has been re-assessed as an eco-friendly technique in Europe.

Iwama said bahan could help address the issue of manmade forests across Japan that are left unattended or abandoned because of sluggish wood prices.

“Bahan workers can earn sufficient incomes if they also saw the lumber by themselves,” he said. “Bahan has an infinite potential because it can lead to a recovery of forests.”

Shohei Sakano, 25, one of about 10 young people involved in bahan in Japan, studies forestry production engineering in the master's course of Iwate University’s graduate school.

He started working as a trainee with Iwama in October after learning bahan for a year in Germany.

“Japan is mountainous areas so bahan is effective,” Sakano said. “I want to be a forestry worker who can also make lumber.”

DRAWING ATTENTION FROM OVERSEAS

Konno Printing Inc. in Sendai’s Wakabayashi Ward has started its original typography brand, Tegami, which uses old type printing presses created in Germany and Japan 50 to 100 years ago.

Officials at the 110-year-old company realized in 2010 that products made with traditional typography have die-hard fans. In that year, Konno Printing displayed typography items created with advanced technologies at a fair in New York to promote its greeting card printing business.

Konno Printing was originally engaged in type printing and once withdrew from the traditional business following severe damage caused by an earthquake off Miyagi Prefecture in 1978.

But the company retained its old presses and skilled workers. So it had both the latest design technology and the traditional printing technique.

“I thought no one but my company could do that,” said Ryuichi Hashiura, president of Konno Printing, referring to his decision to combine the old and new techniques.

Following an exhibition in France, Konno Printing started receiving a succession of inquiries from Europe and Taiwan.

“The endeavor also helps skilled workers smoothly transfer their expertise to younger personnel,” Hashiura said. “The old technique is again being seen as a cutting-edge one many years after it was once abandoned.”

SWEEPING CHANGE

Takakura Kogei, a company in a farming area in Kunohe, northern Iwate Prefecture, has made available the colorful Nanbu Hoki broom by drawing on the traditional production technique.

Broom production is a common way for local farmers to earn money on the side in the off-season.

Although Nanbu Hoki brooms are priced at between 20,000 yen and 150,000 yen ($180 and $1,354) each, they have proved popular at department stores and elsewhere across Japan. They are mainly targeted at urban apartment residents who cannot vacuum at night.

Craftsmen make the Nanbu Hoki by weaving nearly 10 times as many broom corn ears as in ordinary brooms.

The corn is raised by Takakura Kogei in a pesticide-free environment, and Nanbu Hoki can be used “for 20 years” thanks to its strong structure, according to company officials.

Kiyokatsu Takakura, president of Takakura Kogei, said the special brooms are soft and frizzled, so they are also an “excellent cloth brush that will not damage garments.”

Takakura Kogei plans to expand its sales network to Britain and France.