The cute Akabeko, a red cow that shakes its head humorously, is a traditional toy in the Aizu Yanaizu area of Fukushima prefecture. Beko means “cow” or “bull” in one dialect of the Tohoku region.
Akabeko are produced with the techniques of Aizu hariko (molding technique). They were created by Gamo Ujisato, a servant of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, when he called on doll makers from Kyoto and had them teach their techniques to low-class samurai in order to establish a foundation of culture, economy and industry in Aizu.
The body of Akabeko has circle patterns that represent marks of smallpox. The circle patterns are attributed to the legend that a red cow (or bull) warded off the plague epidemic in the Heian era (794-1185). It was said that children would grow up healthy if they had akabeko nearby them. Later on, the smallpox vaccine was developed using the cowpox virus, so cows/bulls might have actually made some contribution to protecting the children of the future.
There one other legend regarding Akabeko. In 1611, the Aizu region was hit by a big earthquake. Aizu Yanaizu was also greatly damaged, with many casualties. Houses and temples like Kokuzoudo were also destroyed. Later on, in 1617, when people tried to rebuild the Kokuzoudo temple on the rocky hill where it’s currently located, they had a really hard time carrying the lumber that was transported from villages near the upper stream of the Tadamigawa river to the top of the steep hill. Suddenly, a herd of powerful red bulls appeared from nowhere and helped them carry the lumber. The herd disappeared before the completion of the Kokuzoudo temple, so people made a cow/bull statue (called nade-ushi) on the temple grounds to show their appreciation, and asked visitors to touch or “rub” it. Based on this legend, Akabeko became a representation of persistence and strength, bringing happiness to the local people. It is stilled a loved figure within the Aizu region.
Akabeko is one of the cutest of all traditional crafts in Japan, and is loved by people of all ages in Japan as well as abroad. The sight of an adorable Akabeko shaking its head up and down brings smiles to our face and creates an inner sense of peace within us. It will surely bring you happiness too!
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