When travelers visit “Tohoku”, the northeastern region of the main island of Honshu, they often come prepared with a few locations or experiences to check off their bucket list. Fewer, however, research the all-important souvenir to bring back home. I always recommend a “kokeshi” doll or two. You’ll find kokeshi at most souvenir or antique shops, craftsmen studios, and even in a few dedicated museums. Nonetheless, if passing through Sendai, the most convenient shop for both Japanese people and non-Japanese alike is, without a doubt, “Shimanuki”. Before I introduce the shop, let’s review what a kokeshi is.
What is a “Kokeshi” ?
Kokeshi are simple, limbless wooden dolls traditionally decorated with common motifs to the region they are made. There is much debatable history and lore surrounding kokeshi dolls, but the here’s the basic story:
Kokeshi dolls were created around 150 years ago in various hot spring regions around the prefectures of Tohoku. Artisans stuck inside from the heavy winter snow began to carve kokeshi as children’s toys. As quality improved they became equally popular as collectibles. Farmers, whom worked all year tending the fields, took a forced vacation during the harsh winter. It was the perfect time for some rest and relaxation at various hot springs to heal their tired bodies. As a memory of their trip or gift for their family, they bought a local kokeshi doll. Traditionally, there are 11 types (some say 12) of kokeshi corresponding to specific areas, almost always a hot spring resort town. Each area has different characteristics in body size, shape, and painted image. For example, kokeshi from Tsuchiyu Onsen in Fukushima City can be identified by their narrow body with a wider bottom, black and red stripes, a smaller head with black circles on the top of the head, and red hair ribbons on both sides of the head.
There are very large and miniature kokeshi, but the standard size is similar to a plastic bottle sports drink or cola. This makes kokeshi very portable and the perfect decoration to display around the house. These days there are also sosaku, or creative/modern kokeshi, with unbound artistic expression.
About Shimanuki Shop
Shimanuki is a souvenir shop specializing in handmade folk crafts produced in Sendai City and kokeshi dolls from around the Tohoku region. Officially the business is called Kokeshino SHIMANUKI CO.,LTD, but locals keep it short and simple. The name “Shimanuki” refers to the last name of the family which first opened the business in 1892. At that time the shop mostly sold tobacco and tobacco accessories. The products for sale have changed, but the shop still proudly stands in the same location 5 generations later, just in a more modern building. In the back of the shop is an experience corner. For a fee, you can color your own kokeshi doll with markers, which allows much more control than using paint brushes which are common elsewhere. You can also make an LED candle with Japanese paper or make a keychain by painting a type of local black stone.
Why Shop at Shimanuki?
- Location: Shimanuki is an easy 10-minute walk from Sendai Station, occupying a first floor storefront inside the lively shopping arcades.
- Atmosphere: Some souvenir shops can be intimidating to enter because of their small size or because staff are unaccustomed to foreign visitors. Not so here. The wide open layout and polite staff encourage browsing. Also, you can pay with your choice of cash, credit card, or electronic money. If you are tired from walking downtown, sign-up for and experience activity since you take a break while sitting down in the air-conditioned store! (Note that no photos are allowed without permission inside the shop.)
- Product Selection: In my opinion, Shimanuki has the best selection of kokeshi for sale in all of Japan. The variety is endless. All traditional types of kokeshi and several types of sosaku kokeshi cover half the store. Small and simple kokeshi can be had for as little as 1,000 yen while rare masterpieces exceed 100,000 yen!
Shimanuki has even produced two original kokeshi brands! “Akari Kokeshi”, or “Light Kokeshi” look like a regular kokeshi but have an LED light hiding inside which automatically switches on when it topples over. This is a clever “emergency light” in case an earthquake occurs during the night. Japan has many small earthquakes. There is also the irresistibly cute “Kokeshi Can”. Kokeshi small enough to fit in your hand are packaged into sealed cans, similar in appearance to tuna cans. Their small size and tough packaging make for easy transport back home.
Besides kokeshi, there are plenty of other local handicrafts in the store. You’ll find Sendai tansu cabinets, theater masks, lacquerware, ceramics, wooden toys, stained glass and more. With such high quality and beautiful displays, you’ll soon be asking yourself if you have entered a souvenir shop or an art gallery. You’ll be glad you visited Shimanuki and find it hard to leave empty-handed.