Photo: Mr Ando

Ando Family's Handmade Dolls

Come face to face with the doll maker to Royalty

By Bonson Lam    - 3 min read

Would you like to be the doll maker to the King of Thailand? How about the Imperial Palace in Tokyo? What about the idea that you and your children and your grandchildren be the preservers of this tradition for this unique Japanese handicraft? Or that you have a small army of servants working around the clock to make each doll, paint each eye, design, select and sew each kimono?

Today I was blessed to be given this opportunity to enter the previously closed world of royalty. If only I could shrink myself to a Japanese doll (Ningyou) and be presented to the King. Even if I could not get into the presence of the Emperor I can still get an insight into royalty within the showroom. In the tradition of Hina Matsuri, or doll festival, the top two dolls on the presentation platform (hina dan) represent the Emperor (Odarisama) and Empress (Ohinasama).

Kyoto is known as the center of handicraft design since it was founded in the Heian period in 794. Many of these handicrafts such as folding fans, and dolls are featured in the Tales of Genji, the oldest written novel in the world and Kyoto's most famous novel.

While the capital had since moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, the legacy of handicraft making for the imperial family lives on in the quiet Kyoto townhouses (Machiya) tucked in the back streets just a few blocks from the original Imperial Palace in Central Kyoto.

After being granted a private audience with the owner Ando san, I got to see the doll makers in the upstairs workshop. As doll making requires many different skills, from kimono making to face painting to hairdressing, these tasks have been designated to different specialist masters. The rolls of kimono cloth in particular are a delight to behold, especially as they are especially made for the dolls as they are on a smaller scale than people. I am also amazed at how they can transform raw silk strands into so many different kinds of hair they use to for their dolls, and how perfectly the hair is combed. I can only imagine how many years of training are required to master these skills Looking around the showroom I am mesmerized by how delicate and exquisite the features are on these dolls, from the refined fingers to the floral and classical patterns of each fold of kimono sleeve. An Ohinasama doll has 16 different layers of kimono. So when you are invited to the imperial wedding, look out for each of the 16 layers.

Luckily these Ohinasama dolls are also available for purchase, and they make a wonderful gift for a very special person or occasion. You can even dress your own doll by booking an “Ichimatsu Doll Fitting Experience” where you are given a tour of the showroom and workshop, a selection of kimono designs and a personal doll fitting experience, all in two hours.

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Bonson Lam

Bonson Lam @bonson.lam

I knew my future was destined to be with Japan the moment I flew from Sydney to experience the atmospheric lane ways of Kyoto last century. From the skies above Sapporo to the old charm of Naha's alleyways, I have been enchanted by the beauty and variety on every island. I am humbled to have met many distinguished people in my role as Regional Partner, especially the national living treasures of Japan, such as the doll maker to the Imperial Family. From sushi cooking classes to Ninja training grounds I welcome your ideas on what you like from JapanTravel.com. Please visit us in Kyoto or Osaka and have some green tea or sake with us. 

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JapanTravel Guest
JapanTravel Guest 4 years ago
Interesting article. I have Japanese dolls that I can no longer keep that were made by an American at The Japanese Doll Making Insitute in Yokohama. Do you know of anyone who may be interested in these dolls?
Bonson Lam Author 4 years ago
Hi Janna, thank you! I hope they can go to a good home. I used to know a doll collector in Kishiwada, she had thousands of dolls from every era. It is like she turned her cottage into a museum. If I am back there one day I can see if I can track her down. Have a great day.
Bonson Lam Author 8 years ago
Besides the doll making classes and the mesmerizing work on display in the studio, I was fortunate enough to hear of the Ando family’s Hina Matsuri traditions. “As Hina Matsuri approached, we displayed plum blossoms in front of the dolls. It is said that plum blossoms have the power to drive away evil spirits. I eat traditional dishes like Chirashi-Sushi, or sushi rice flavored with sugar, vinegar, topped with lots of raw fish and a variety of ingredients, as well as clam soup for the Doll Festival. Why clam soup? Clam shells in soup are deemed the symbol of a united and peaceful couple, because a pair of clam shells fits perfectly, and no pair but the original pair can do so. Parents serve clam soup to wish for their daughters to find the destined soul mate like clam shells.”
Wouter Thielen 8 years ago
This is pretty amazing! It was Hina-matsuri only recently, and this article is very fitting.