Hachinohe lies on the northeast coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu. The area has a rich history, dating back to the days when it was ruled by the Nanbu clan. Today, it’s a region known for its glorious nature, delectable cuisine and captivating culture – including a long tradition of exquisite folk artistry. From fine Nanbu sakiori weavings to wooden Yawata-uma horse figurines that have been made here for more than seven hundred years, Hachinohe produces some of the best folk crafts in Japan. Culture vultures, souvenir-hunters and designers alike will delight in the artisanal offerings of Hachinohe.
Hachinohe is a region in Aomori Prefecture, incorporating the city of Hachinohe itself, as well as a series of smaller towns and villages in the surrounding area. Lapped by the Pacific Ocean, Hachinohe is known for its outstanding natural beauty, especially along the Tanesashi Coast. It’s a place shaped by its seafront location, where freshly caught fish and seafood dominate restaurant menus and remain a mainstay of the local economy. Natural bounty aside, Hachinohe is a bastion of history and culture, having served as a significant regional centre since Nanbu rule. Over the centuries, a vast number of creative and decorative arts have developed and thrived here, producing some of the finest folk crafts in Japan. Today, there are numerous museums and craft centres, shops and markets to get to grips with the traditional arts and crafts of Hachinohe. Roll up your sleeves and get involved.
Hachinohe is easily accessible from almost any area in Japan. Perhaps the simplest and most popular way to get here is by rail: Hachinohe Station hosts the JR East Shinkansen or bullet train, the IGR (Iwate Galaxy Railway) and the Aoimori Railway Line. From Tokyo, the bullet train takes around 2hr 45mins. The nearest airport to the city is Misawa (MSJ); it’s a good 40–50 minutes away, however. Hiring a car, meanwhile, will get you further from the beaten track when you’re in town.
To explore Hachinohe City itself by rail, you’ll most likely make good use of the Hachinohe Line. With stops at Tatehana Wharf for the Sunday Morning Market (Mutsuminato Station), Kabushima Shrine (Same Station) and the Tanesashi Natural Lawn and Information Center (Tanesashikaigan Station), it’ll get you to all the important points of interest. A helpful bus network also services the city, as well as a number of sightseeing buses which are a great option for travellers (for instance, one plies the Tanesashi Coast, and another leaves for the Sunday Morning Market). See the Visit Hachinohe website for detailed information on Access.
The history of folk crafts in Hachinohe is inextricably linked to Nanbu rule, when many of the area’s unique techniques and styles were developed. The Nanbu samurai clan presided over the region for more than seven hundred years – through the Kamakura and Edo periods – and the family line survives to this very day. You’ll notice the “Nanbu” prefix attached to a number of styles and products, belying their origins. Nanbu sakiori, for example, is a style of weaving cotton, traditionally used to make rugs, work clothes and belts; today, local weavers create a range of beautiful handmade textiles including decorative tablecloths and other enchanting souvenirs. Nanbu senbei, meanwhile, are iconic crackers that have been eaten in the region for centuries, and are still savoured today. Though several myths attest to their origin, one popular tale goes that a group of Nanbu soldiers invented the dish on the battlefield using their helmets. Wherever you discover crafts in Hachinohe, you are sure to find items steeped in tradition and history.
The YouTree Building is the place to come for a comprehensive overview of the crafts for which Hachinohe is famed. The centre puts on a range of superlative exhibitions and demonstrations focused on the area’s most iconic traditional products. There’s plenty to get involved in, too, from baking your own Nanbu senbei rice crackers to weaving according to Nanbu sakiori style – using old strips of cloth to make gorgeous new garments. Alternatively, try your hand at embroidery using the Nanbu hishizashi diamond stitch. If you don’t fancy your own creative skills, simply browse the fantastic selection of traditional crafts for sale: these lovely items make the perfect, authentic souvenir to take back home.
For a good introduction to the area’s history and culture, including its traditional folk crafts, make for Hachinohe City Museum. The permanent collection has exhibits dedicated to archeology, history and folk customs, and showcases a number of precious artefacts, from hand-crafted suits of armour to Nanbu hishizashi embroidery and earthenware pottery. Check out the museum calendar for any special events or temporary exhibitions that might coincide with your visit.
The Kaneiri Museum Shop stocks a range of fascinating crafts from Hachinohe, as well as items from the wider Aomori and Tohoku regions. With a focus on supporting the local community, the shop aims to champion artists and craftspeople who keep the area’s culture and traditions alive – so any money you spend will go to a good cause. Pay particular attention to the Yawata-uma figurines – wooden toy horses – among the most emblematic crafts produced in Hachinohe. These toy horses were originally carved by farmers in the off-season and sold as souvenirs at the Kushihiki Hachiman-gu Shrine festival; they are thought to bring good luck and are still often given as wedding gifts. Items from further afield include Tsugaru-nuri lacquerware from western Aomori. If you’re keen to learn more about Hachinohe craftsmanship, pick up a book dedicated to local art, design or culture while you’re here.
Senbei, the region’s traditional rice crackers, have been produced and enjoyed in Hachinohe for as long as anyone can remember. These iconic snacks are now created in a dazzling array of flavours and varieties, and one of the best places to have your fill is the Takebayashi Senbei Shop. It’s run by a married couple who have hawked their tasty wares from the modest shopfront for more than fifty years. And though their techniques remain traditional and authentic, using iron moulds to shape the thin and crisp crackers, the husband and wife team have expanded their flavour offerings to cater for more adventurous tastes. Try pine-nut or cheese senbei, chocolate or honey with black sugar – and be sure to ask about seasonal specialities, too.
The town of Gonohe is well worth a visit for its long-standing folk-craft traditions, in particular its Nanbu hishizashi embroidery. Developed in the Edo Era, hishizashi was a means to strengthen hemp cloth with the little cotton that was available. The hand-stitched patterns usually consist of interlocking diamonds – the result is highly prized and decorative. In Gonohe, hishizashi was used to create all items of clothing, from children’s socks to traditional mae-kake (a type of Japanese apron).
Gonohe is also well known for making the baori, a woven hat popularized in the 17–19th centuries. Innovative new techniques produced a straw hat that was essentially waterproof – a great practical draw, protecting locals from both the burning sun and the rain. In the mid-20th century, as new hat styles and materials such as plastic became widespread in rural Japan, baori hats largely went out of favour. Nevertheless, the art of creation was passed down from generation to generation, and traditional baori hats are produced in Gonohe to this day. In 2012, they were afforded special status as a prefectural traditional art product.
The fine exhibits at the Senshin Art Museum give visitors great insight into the talented local artists and craftspeople of yesteryear. The range of items and techniques on display is impressive, from rare Nara and Tempyo Era sculptures to beautiful bronzes, fine pottery, ceramics and woodwork. The Nara and Tempyo Era sculptures are particularly mesmerizing, made using hollow dried lacquer techniques. These pieces are unique to the area – and indeed to the museum.
In a country known for its sake, it’s no mean feat that the breweries of Hachinohe still manage to stand out. Pick from a number of historic breweries that offer memorable factory tours, where you can learn all about traditional brewing methods.
Hachitsuru is one of the most famous local sake brands, established back in 1786 during the Edo Era. It’s name alludes to the pair of cranes on the Nanbu family crest (“tsuru” meaning “crane”). Factory tours take place during the brewing season (December–March), when you can see Nanbu-style brewing in action, and check out the sake as it bubbles and ferments. Alternatively, plump for a free tour of the Momokawa Sake Brewery. Slightly younger than Hachitsuru (established in 1889), Momokawa has a name for excellence. Like all good brewery tours, Momokawa’s tour ends with a tasting, when you can sample a range of different grades of sake.
Foodies will also want to explore Hachinohe Market, where you can buy all manner of fresh foods. Tatehana Wharf Morning Market is particularly atmospheric; starting at 6am, locals throng to stalls selling fried chicken, warming ramen, fresh vegetables and grilled fish. If that all sounds like too much to stomach so early in the morning, pick up a coffee and peruse the local handcrafts on sale instead.
With so much to see and do in Hachinohe, it’s worth deciding what sights you want to prioritize before you arrive – depending on the length of your trip, of course. It’s also a good idea to book your accommodation in advance: you’ll find it’s time – and money – well spent. Most visitors will plump to stay in Hachinohe City itself, where there’s an excellent choice of hostels, hotels and ryokan. Basing yourself in the city is obviously advantageous, as it’s easy to get around, and you’ll have all the facilities of an urban centre. But be sure to strike out to Hachinohe’s smaller towns, villages and scenic areas, too, which provide authentic experiences you won’t forget. Wherever you go, pause to marvel at the fantastic folk crafts created in the region and to absorb the story of their makers.
There are plenty of fantastic reasons to visit Hachinohe, from its terrific historic sights to dishes of delicious seafood and a pretty coastline just waiting to be explored. It’s also one of the best areas to view folk crafts in Japan, home to intricate embroidery, exquisite woodwork, innovative hats, hand-crafted crackers and traditionally brewed sake. We’ll raise a glass to that.
Top image: Japanese traditional Yawata-uma horse toys © JenJ_Payless/Shutterstock
This article was created in partnership with Visit Hachinohe.