Arts & Design Culture Gift Guide Tohoku

Kokeshi: Traditional Japanese Dolls from Tohoku

Before getting insight into Kokeshi, first I would like to praise its birthplace called Tohoku. It is a charm area, don’t you think so?

Blessed with abundance of beautiful nature, Tohoku has become one of the places in Japan that foreign visitors don’t hesitate to admire its utmost beauty.

It is home to many world-class hot spring resorts; in fact this is one of the reasons why people love visiting Tohoku. Whenever you visit it make sure you don’t leave it without buying a simple souvenir that is cute, at the same time a perfect collectable for display. And yes that is what we call Kokeshi.

You can learn how to make kokeshi dolls reading this fascinating book. I have my own copy, now it is your turn to collect it.

Two giant Kokeshi dolls at Misawa Airport, Aomori. Photo Credit: Wikimedia commons.

Kokeshi is a traditional Japanese wooden doll. It has been a quite valuable part of Japanese folk handicraft since a long time ago.

When I say it as a wooden doll, just admire it as a traditional art that is created by skilled artisans who design each and every traditional Kokeshi doll by putting their hearts into craving.

The one who is expert in making the dolls is said to be very hard working and dedicating. Today, I would like to share some very fascinating information including facts about Kokeshi doll; I hope you enjoy reading it.

A little bit history of Kokeshi

Nowadays this kind of Kokeshi doll is quite popular. Photo Credit: yoppy at Flickr.

What impresses me the most about getting familiar with a new thing is its history. Kokeshi history would impress you a lot once you know it.

There are several kinds of traditional Japanese dolls, they are all known by the name ningyō which literally means human shape. It is said that Japanese dolls originate in the Jōmon period (14,000 BC to 300 BC). Among the dolls, Hinamatsuri, Daruma and Kokeshi are the most precious.

The origin of Kokeshi dates back to between the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868) and early 19th century in Northern Japan. The tradition gradually spread throughout the region and became a quite popular Japanese folk art.

At the time in winter, artisans skilled in woodwork (Kijiya) who usually used to make household utensils such as wooden bowls, trays, and chopsticks began making this type of doll to sell as souvenir to hot spring visitors.

In general, winter in Tohoku is severe. In winter, people very often go to onsen area and soak in the hot bath to stay away from the cold.

Being a simple and inexpensive doll, it was a perfect gift for children whose family could not effort to buy them porcelain doll. Today, it is designated as a valuable Japanese folk art.

Insight into Kokeshi

Traditional kokeshi dolls. Photo Credit: yoppy at Flickr.

When I was a kid, I had several Kokeshi dolls, gifted by my parents and relatives. All the Kokeshi at the time were not traditional Kokeshi, but creative Kokeshi too.

Don’t you think that I don’t have it now, I like collecting them and in my room you can find some very unique style of Kokeshi that I purchased from some the stores in Naruko town, Miyagi Prefecture.

Kokeshi is a simple wooden doll made out of woods like cherry, Japanese maple, dogwoods and Japanese cypress tree. It comes with an enlarged round head and simple painted face, without arms and legs.

One of the most interesting facts about the traditional Kokeshi doll is that its body has a floral design painted in red and black, sometimes yellow. It is said that unpainted Kokeshi dolls were very popular in the past.

Here is the photo of a creative kokeshi doll. Photo Credit: Sarah Joy at Flickr.

In general, there are two types of Kokeshi: Traditional Kokeshi and Creative Kokeshi. Apart from this, based on regional areas Kokeshi comes in many other varieties such as Naruko, Yamagata, Nanbu, Tsugaru, Tsuchiyu, Yajiro, Zao-takayu and many more. Please note that the trend of making creative kokeshi appeared after World War II.

Today’s Kokeshi you find at various souvenir stores across Japan are very attractive, colorful and kawaii. Everything is done by a hand, that’s why it is a very precious Japanese art.

Once it was less expensive but today it is a bit more expensive souvenir that you buy in Japan.

In fact, there are many online stores where beautiful Kokeshi can be purchased. Based on the quality their prices may vary. Please check out this authentic Usaburo Japanese Kokeshi Doll. It is one of my favorite dolls!

You can take a look at the following other characteristics:

Shop of the Kokeshi dolls can be found most of the popular tourist destination across Japan. Photo Credit: Robert Francis at Flickr.

1. Dolls faces come in different modes, some are smiley, real whimsical, serious, and other are very gentle.

2. Creative kokeshi could be painted in different colors such as red, black, blue, yellow, pink, green, and orange.

3. Except getting painted in bright floral patterns, a modern Kokeshi could be painted in kimono, yukata and other traditional patterns.

4. Creative Kokeshi appear in more shapely bodies.

5. The woods that are used for making Kokeshi dolls left outside for one to five years so that woods become solid.

6. Even though this is a fully hand painted craft, to make the shape of the body of a creative kokeshi an artisan could rely on special machines. While on the other hand, traditional kekoshi are made on hand-powered lathes.

Some Interesting Facts about Kokeshi Doll

Inside a Kokeshi workshop in Japan. Photo Credit: yoppy at Flickr.

1) Kekoshi were believed to be able to contain the spirits of ancestors and were created in memory of recently dead relatives.

2) During the Edo Period, kokeshi dolls were said to be a guardian of children and keeper of their soul.

3) A doll is referred to be a lucky charm and protects a house against fire.

4) Keyaki and chestnut trees woods are used to make Usaburo Kokeshi (A form of Creative Kokeshi).

5) It is said that there was a tradition of giving kokeshi dolls to those women who had lost a child either through an abortion or through miscarriage.

6) There is a tradition that the style and skill of creating Kokeshi was passed from father to son or from master to apprentice.

Why are you so serious?! Photo Credit: Nancy <I’m gonna SNAP! at Flick.

7) In the past, farmers used to believe that presenting a kokeshi doll to their children would pacify the gods and bring a good harvest year.

8) Traditional kokeshi are only produced in the Tohoku regions across its six prefectures. While on the other hand, majority of kakoshi dolls are in Gunma Prefecture, Japan.

9) Not all the kokeshi you found all over Japan are similar as the dolls made in different regions in Japan have their own unique style and character.

10) The creating of a quality kokeshi doll depends on the wood, craving, painting and right finishing.

11) When purchasing for a good quality kokeshi doll, keep in mind that you should first take a look at the balance of the body, then design and finally the paintings.

12) Influence of Kokeshi can be seen on Matryoshka (the nesting Russian dolls).

A Gift of Making Someone Happy

You are suggested to buy both traditional and creative kokeshi when you visit Japan. Photo Credit: hiromy at Flickr.

This type traditional Japanese doll is quite a popular gift idea for making someone happy. It is a perfect and unique present that suit well for many occasions such as on birthday, Christmas, New Year celebration, Valentine’s Day and so on.

Anyone looking for a hand-made Japanese gift could choose a perfect kokeshi doll and could surprise someone at once.

I have some recommended and most beautiful Japanese Kokeshi dolls for you to choose from.

1) Usaburo Japanese Kokeshi Doll, Hiro the Junior Samurai

2) 6 Inch Kokeshi Doll – Perfect gift for teen girl

3) Usaburo Japanese Kokeshi Doll, Hoshi’s Blue Kimono

4) Solid Wood Kokeshi Doll

Vintage Kokeshi – simply beautiful! Photo Credit: allerleirau at Flickr.

Presenting a nice cute kokeshi doll to my friends on their special days is kind of my secrete gift idea.

Some of my friends who live outside Japan love this sort of gift idea very much. The main reason is that it is unique and pretty ideal home décor accessory.

If you are a Japan enthusiast and like its culture then why don’t you collect some beautiful looking kekoshi? You should collect some and display them in the living room to surprise your visitors.

Love Kokeshi Dolls

Cute kokeshi dolls. Photo Credit: THOR at Flickr.

I love everything about kokeshi doll, not only because of their unique shapes but also for hand paint on the faces. If it inspires you to learn how to make Kokeshi doll then my suggestion to you is – head to Naruko town in Miyagi prefecture.

The craftsmen there are quite skilled and could teach you their techniques of making Naruko kokeshi dolls. Well, you can read a book called “Kokeshi, From Tohoku with Love” and I think this book will help you understand more about this doll making tradition. It is quite informative!

Every year, All Japan Kokeshi Doll Contest is held in Shiroishi city with the aim to introduce the different types of Kokeshi dolls produced all over Japan. It is one of the important events in Japan where kokeshi artisans from different parts of Japan gather with their kokeshi dolls.

The chance of winning the competition depends on the creativity. A lot of people who are interested in arts & crafts arrive there and enjoy a festive atmosphere. You can visit it and see how the competition goes.

Hopefully you won’t forget buying some Kokeshi from there. In addition, there is a museum called Japan Kokeshi Museum in Osaki city. It has about five thousands kokeshi dolls on display. Love Kekoshi dolls and Japanese culture. Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply