Even if you’ve never been to Fukushima before, there’s a chance that you may have seen an Akabeko lucky charm somewhere. Perhaps in a gift shop, or decorating a hotel display wall. There are many regional crafts that are thought to bring good luck to those who receive them, but akabeko are so cute that I can understand why they have become popular even outside of Fukushima!
So what are they?
Embarrassingly, I thought that they were pigs to begin with, but they are, in fact, cows. In Japanese ‘aka’ means ‘red’, and ‘beko’ is a Fukushima Prefecture dialect for ‘cow’. They come in many shapes and sizes, but one aspect of the akabeko stays pretty constant; their bobbing head.
What’s their story?
The akabeko legend started in Yanaizu, Aizu.
In Yanaizu, an ancient temple called Enzoji stands high over crags, looking down on Tadami River. Surrounded by dense foliage, Enzoji looks spectacular in autumn. Its wooden structure stands out against white snow in winter time as well.
The construction of this temple began in the year 807, but due to a huge earthquake at the end of the seventeenth century, repair work begun in 1617. It was during the reconstruction of the temple that the akabeko became a folk legend.
It is said that moving the wood and other supplies necessary for the reconstruction work was incredibly difficult, because materials had to be transported from various villages upstream of Tadami River. The materials were heavy and the journey to the temple hard.
Many cattle that were being used to transport these materials were struggling to bear their loads, when out of nowhere appeared a cow with red fur. (It should be noted that, in the past, the word ‘red’ was used to describe the colour ‘brown’, so it is possible that it was a brown cow!) The red cow supported the other cows and helped the priests who were constructing the temple until it was completed, when it suddenly vanished.
A number of statues of the cow were built inside the temple grounds so that the people of Yanaizu could express their gratitude to the akabeko.
In the years following, there were a number of other legends about the akabeko, such as those families who owned akabeko being rid of sickness upon stroking the cows. They continued to hold their status of bringers of good luck and strength. Families bought or made akabeko toys for their young children to play with.
Akabeko in Recent Years
In recent history, the Aizu tradition of painting akabeko began. When I visited Aizu Wakamatsu City recently, I was told that this tradition started due to visiting school kids who came to visit Aizu Wakamatsu wanting something to do in the evenings after they had finished sightseeing. This was when the story of the akabeko evolved once more, into its newest papier-mâché form.
There are a number of workshops in Aizu Wakamatsu city where you can try and paint your own akabeko! At some workshops, visitors are presented with an example of the traditional red, white and black akabeko, for them to copy.
The akabeko that I painted is in the centre of the two models!
At others, you are free to paint your beko whatever colour you’d like! Whether you choose to paint it traditional colours, or use your imagination, I would recommend copying the stripes on the face and back of the cow, as these represent strength and perseverance.
Above is a photograph of the wooden molds which are used to make the papier-maché bodies of the akabeko. The same wooden block is used over and over again, and there is a bit cut down the back which is used to cut the papier-maché body off of the mold.
These talismans for good health make very cute and light-weight souvenirs to take home and give to family and friends – or keep for yourself! If you’re not the artistic type, the akabeko is one of the most well-known souvenirs from Fukushima Prefecture, so you will be able to find it at most souvenir shops!
Other traditional craft experiences include painting candles, Aizu lacquerwork painting, designing your own Okiagari Koboshi (daruma which represents perseverance when faced with difficulties) and many, many more!
There are many places to experience making traditional crafts across Fukushima Prefecture, but there are so many places to try a huge range of activities out in Aizu Wakamatsu, that I would thoroughly recommended you try some during your next visit!