It's been nearly 7 years since the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan, but 2017 marked the first year that foreign tourists visiting Fukushima, often considered the epicenter of much of the chaos, exceeded the numbers of those who came to the area before the disaster. A strong sense of resolve has helped vibrancy return to the everyday life of affected areas. However, there are still many "evacuation areas" where recovery is still stalled.

Turning the hidden charm of Fukushima into souvenirs

This is particularly true of the coastal Sousou region of Eastern Fukushima prefecture. 5 of 12 municipalities are designated evacuation areas. People in the region would like to change perception and revitalize the area, however, as they are now banding together behind a rallying cry of "working together and showing people the charm of Sousou" that calls upon the passion and cooperation of 10 local business owners. In order to create a new impression of Fukushima, they've teamed up to create new omiyage, or traditional Japanese souvenirs, representative of the region and its recovery.

The project plays off of Fukushima's name, as it is called the "Small Souvenirs of Happiness" project, with Happiness being the "Fuku" in "Fukushima". Each of the newly crafted six souvenirs is emblematic of region-exclusive specialties loved by people who live in the area. They are all especially designed to be handled easily, with the idea being that the charm of Fukushima can be passed from hand to hand by as many people as possible.

In order to promote the still-thriving traditional art of local areas in Fukushima, as well as the stories behind them, the project allowed a guided tour for the press, which our staff had the pleasure of attending.

"Phantom Fish" blessed by nature

In the middle of the sprawling Abukuma mountain range, with spans over Miyagi, Ibaraki, and Fukushima prefectures, is a small town of roughly 2,500 people called Kawauchi. The town is surrounded by rich forests and hosts pristine streams of water, the only type of water in which the illusive Japanese char fish, or iwana, is said to be able to inhabit. Because of their long tradition of cultivating iwana, it's been nicknamed the "town of iwana". It was designated as an evacuation area following the earthquake, but resumed tourism promotions in July of 2013.

Despite their small appearance, after five years, they can reach this size!

For the project, iwana of about 2-3 years in age are used, boiled slowly together in a pressure cooker with cabbage until the bones are softened, then smoked together with sakura chips to create Smoked Iwana.

The iwana in the pristine streams of "Town of Iwana" don't have the strong, and sometimes off-putting smell that characterize most river fish, so smoked iwana allow for a very pure flavor sensitive to seasoning. Locals suggested downing beer while enjoying them, and they certainly make for a lovely drinking snack that not only gives you a great representative of Japanese drinking treats, but a fresh sample of regional flavor.

Craftsmanship preserved from the Edo Period

Next, we visited the Ikariya shopping district of Ohori village in Namie. Here you can find Ohori Soma Yaki pottery, where traditional crafts and ceramics that date back to the Edo Period are made by hand and sold.

The town is located just 10 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, so the proprietor, Mr. Yamada, was forced to evacuate and is currently operating out of a temporary store in Shirakawa City.

Ohori Soma's ceramics have a distinct characteristic called the "blue crack", which is produced by cooling when the craft is brought out from the kiln. This causes the item made to play a relaxing tune similar to a traditional Japanese wind chime as it is being made.

Many teacups are layered into inner and out layers, making poured drinks difficult to cool down. A "double firing" technique seems to be unique to Ohori Soma Yaki.

Mr. Yamada still handles things by himself, including molding, baking, and applying finishing touches. Needless to say, it takes years of practiced discipline and skill.

Without any drafting or planning, he on-the-spot painted a beautiful running horse much to delight of all in attendance.

Mr. Takeshi Matsunaga of the "Small Souvenirs of Happiness" project was born at this traditional pottery and ceramics shop, and currently handles planning and selling of items.

For the project, the shop offers a set of five small, ornate plates with designs made by locals to represent the area. Each is made carefully and painstakingly by hand, with a level of craftsmanship that hearkens back to the Edo Period.

A taste of Fukushima that fits in the palm of your hand

In addition to the smoked iwana and Edo Period crafts, a variety of local flavors completes the assortment of unknown treasures from Fukushima. A long-running shop established in 1940 offers up cream cheese pickled in miso, as well as Japanese chestnuts boiled to have a soft and tender inner skin. The variety pack allows visitors from all over to get a taste for the local flavors of Fukushima passed down through generations.

Each souvenir for the project was crafted with special and intimate consultation with local business owners, which allows for them to serve as an authentic sampling of what seems to be an understood prefecture in Japan.

Mr. Matsunaga wants the "Small Souvenirs of Happiness" to serve as a window to outside regions into Fukushima, and let the art and flavor of the gifts speak for themselves and lead people to visit. If you are in Japan and can get your hands on any of the souvenirs, hopefully they can serve as a starting point of interest for people to help revitalize what is already a culturally thriving area.

Fuku no Omiyage

Participating companies: Kanno Pickled Goods, Ishii Farm, Abakuma Kawauchi, Danoni, Tamano Main Branch, Ikariya Kiln, Kyogetsu Kiln, Haruyama Kiln, Hanaya Kiln, Matsunaga Kiln

Purchase method: Available from March 1st, sold at all Fukushimart stores.

By - grape Japan editorial staff.

Sponsored by:
Fuku no Omiyage / Fukushima Challenge /
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