It’s the year of the ox, and hopefully, a year of healing―perfect for the traditional red akabeko.
If you’ve ever spent any time in Fukushima, particularly the Aizu area, you’ve probably laid eyes on one of these vibrant red cows before. Akabeko are seen in souvenir shops, in restaurants, on signs, and all over Fukushima. But, with their white stripes and bobbing heads, the akabeko is a little toy cow with a long history!
In the Aizu area they say that the toys are based on a real red cow that lived all the way back in the year 807, when it found itself on the grounds of Enzoji Temple, which was being reconstructed at the time. The cow helped with the temple’s repairs, carrying materials on its back, and after the construction was finished, it had apparently become quite committed. Legend says that the red cow either refused the leave the grounds, sticking around at the temple for the rest of its life, or it immediately gave its spirit to Buddha and turned to stone! Either way, the red cow became a symbol of Buddhist devotion, the beginning of a new symbol of good luck.
In slightly more recent years, in the late 16th century, the people of Aizu decided that the akabeko was an even more powerful good luck charm than previously assumed. Not only did it ward off bad luck―it seemed to ward off smallpox! During a 16th-century Japanese outbreak of the disease, children who owned Akabeko somehow seemed to avoid catching it, and to this day some say that the spots on the akabeko’s sides are smallpox pockmarks.
Akabeko (赤べこ) literally means red cow in Aizu’s local dialect of Japanese, and the vibrant bobbing heads are easy to spot all around Fukushima, but these days they come in a variety of colors. It’s not hard to find a “red cow” painted blue or gold!