Kokeshi: A Lasting Tradition and Art

Featured | By Sherilyn Siy  - 4 min read

These handcrafted wooden dolls are probably one of the most intriguing traditional crafts in Miyagi Prefecture. At first glance, they all look the same with their round heads, simple trunk without arms or legs, and only a few painted lines to suggest a face, hair, clothes, and even accessories. But look more closely and you will be enthralled by the variety of expressions on the faces, many serene, some curious, others content. You will find dolls that look deep in thought and dolls that look amused as if they remembered a joke they heard yesterday.

Giant kokeshi outside the Japan Kokeshi Museum (Photo: Miyagi Prefecture)
Giant kokeshi outside the Japan Kokeshi Museum (Photo: Miyagi Prefecture)

Children’s book writer and avid kokeshi collector, Kaname Fukazawa, said that “kokeshi itself seem to be the people of Tohoku.” Each doll is truly unique, with its own personality, as influenced by the personality of the kokeshi artisans who crafted them, their names signed at the back or on the bottom. But even the very same artist may paint a wide variety of faces, depending on their mood, the weather, and other conditions that day. Kokeshi artisans often model the faces of the dolls after their own children’s faces, and their work is crafted with the same care and affection they devote to their children. Each doll is one of a kind, making it an ideal collector’s item.

Artisan painting a kokeshi doll (Photo: Miyagi Prefecture)
Artisan painting a kokeshi doll (Photo: Miyagi Prefecture)

Kokeshi production takes a long time. First, wood is carefully selected and cut during the winter. Cherry wood lends a darker shade to the final product while maple is often the wood of choice for traditional dolls. The wood is left outdoors for one to five years to dry and season before they are shaped and carved. After the kokeshi’s face and body are painted, wax is applied.

Kokeshi were first produced in the late Edo Period, possibly sometime between 1804-1830, and the Togatta hot spring area is believed to have been the birthplace of the first wooden dolls. They were sold as souvenirs to the visitors of the hot springs who considered them good luck charms for health and fortune, or simply as toys for their children. While there are a wide variety of contemporary kokeshi dolls—from a kokeshi of Yoda from Star Wars to a wooden head and trunk version of the polka-dot loving artist Yayoi Kusama—there are only 11 traditional styles of kokeshi from all over Japan but Miyagi Prefecture boasts being the home of 5 of these styles: Naruko, Togatta, Yajiro, Sakunami, and Hijiori. These 5 styles evolved from the hot springs where the artisans were located and differ in the doll’s figure and tradition. For instance, Naruko kokeshi's trunk usually thins in the middle and is often painted with chrysanthemums while Togatta kokeshi has sloping shoulders and long thin trunk. Regardless of style, all kokeshi are characterized by the simplicity of their form.

Have fun painting Kokeshi dolls! (Photo: Miyagi Prefecture)
Have fun painting Kokeshi dolls! (Photo: Miyagi Prefecture)

In 1981, Miyagi kokeshi received the designation of a national traditional craft. Miyagi Prefecture is home to about 100 of Japan’s 180 kokeshi artisans. For kokeshi artisan families, particular designs and styles are maintained through the generations and so kokeshi embody the achievement and life history of families, and are an expression of regional pride. To own a kokeshi doll is to take part in this ongoing dialogue across time and history.

Facilities

Here is a list of facilities with kokeshi galleries and offer kokeshi painting experiences.

Nihon Kokeshi-kan / Japan Kokeshi Museum

Address: 74-2 Shitomae, Naruko-onsen, Osaki-shi, Miyagi-ken 989-6827

Tel: (+81) 0229-83-3600

Website: http://www.kokesikan.com

Closed: 01 January - 31 March.

Painting Experience: Available.

Miyagi Zao Kokeshi-kan / Miyagi Zao Kokeshi Museum

Address: 36-135 Togattaonsen Shinchi Nishiurayama, Zao-machi, Miyagi-ken 989-0916

Tel: (+81) 0224-34-2385

Website: http://kokeshizao.com

Open: all year round.

Painting Experience: Available.

Yajiro Kokeshi Mura / Yajiro Kokeshi Doll Village

Address: 72-1 Yajirokita, Fukuokayatsumiya, Shioishi-shi, Miyagi-ken 989-0200

Tel: (+81) 0224-26-3993

Website: http://www.city.shiroishi.miyagi.jp/site/kanko/1481.html

Closed: Every Wednesday, or the following weekday if Wednesday lands on a national holiday.

Free Entrance Painting Experience: Available

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Sherilyn Siy

Sherilyn Siy @sherilyn.siy

For Sherilyn Siy, Asia is home. Born in Hong Kong, Sherilyn spent time in the Philippines, China, and now lives in Japan. She speaks English, Filipino, Chinese (or putonghua), and Hokkien, her family's local dialect. Running is one of her favorite ways to explore Japan. She proudly finished the 2015 Tokyo Marathon -- her first ever full marathon -- in 4 hours and 37 minutes. She was absolutely psyched when she got selected again to run the new Tokyo Marathon route in 2018. She hopes to complete other races in Japan. 

Join the discussion

Kim B 2 months ago
I'm kokeshi obsessed...they are my favorite souvenirs from Japan and I love learning more about them!
Sleiman Azizi 2 months ago
This is nicely written. I like how you described owning a kokeshi as taking part in an ongoing dialogue across time and history.