During my time in Iwaki Yumoto Onsen I was able to meet a number of local workers.
It’s no understatement to describe my meeting with Mr Morita as one of the highlights of my trip to Iwaki.
Mr Morita is an 82 year old woodworker and potter who has been carving and creating in his own shop for the past 40 years. He specializes in making an instrument called the shakuhachi out of bamboo.
A shakuhachi is similar to a recorder, except for the fact it doesn’t make you want to plug your ears when you hear it… In fact, the tone it produces is very warm and smooth.
There is no reed in a shakuhachi, so in order to play it, you have to blow air into the instrument at exactly the correct angle. I tried my best to make a note, but was ultimately unsuccessful.
Mr Morita is such a kind, soft-spoken man. He spoke to me about the different products he has been making, and chuckled softly, but also slightly sadly, when telling me that he probably won’t be able to carve wood for much longer.
One of the other items that Mr Morita specialises in making is a Balance Dragonfly (バランストンボ in Japanese). These are very delicate sculptures of dragonflies which balance perfectly on their nose if you place them on the edge or tip of an object. You can even balance them on your finger! I was so happy to receive a Balance Dragonfly from Mr Morita as a present! It’s currently in my apartment and I will definitely treasure it.
You can see what a Balance Dragonfly looks like by looking back at my photograph of Mr Morita. If you look closely, Balance Dragonflies can be seen in the bottom left of the photo.
After leaving Mr Morita’s shop, I was introduced to Mr Kaneko, who works as an ice-carver.
Perhaps ice was also carved in a similar way in the UK before the life-changing invention of the refrigerator, but I had never encountered anything similar to what I found in Mr Kaneko’s workshop!
I’m not even sure you can call it a workshop. It is a small, dark, cold, brick room with thick walls. Mr Kaneko doesn’t use any refrigerators or cooling technologies to keep his ice cold, but simply stores it in this room after carving it with a large saw, before selling it directly to his clients.
Apparently the use of a refrigerator in maintaining ice’s temperature changes the quality and the taste of the ice, and you will never get ice as pure and as delicious as ice prepared in this traditional method!
I did try to use Mr Kaneko’s horrifically sharp saw to try my hand at ice carving, but I failed quite abysmally! This wasn’t aided by my lack of Japanese skills, which meant I misheard him saying “Shiku shiku!!” (which means “Cover it! Cover it!”), when he was actually shouting “Hiku! Hiku!” (which means “PULL IT! PULL IT!”) at me.
I think it goes without seeing that I wasn’t cut out for the life of an ice carver. But it was certainly nice to try. It was also really interesting to meet people who have stayed in one town for their whole lives, despite the hardships and changes that their towns and communities have experienced.
They have continued to master their favourite traditional crafts and skills, regardless of the changing of the times. In a world full of department stores and supermarkets, it is nice to see a glimpse of how things used to be.