All dolled up
Kokeshi dolls have neither big eyes nor blond hair like Barbie. As a matter of fact, they don’t even have arms and legs. Yet recently this 200-year-old form of folk art is all the rage with a new generation of admirers flocking to collect the handcrafted dolls for their unique and simple charm.
Once considered old fashioned, these limbless cylindrical dolls with round heads and expressive faces are now the new “kakoii” (cool) and “kawaii”(cute) for many 20- to 30-something-year-olds. They grace glossy magazine covers, websites and pop-culture exhibits. Just ask Takuro Yamada, manager of a traditional kokeshi museum in Koroishi, Aomori Prefecture
“The number of visitors coming to Tsugaru Kokeshi Museum has been increasing every year. We are seeing young women and also many foreigners,” says Yamada, who attributes the boom to a media fascination with kokeshi that started a couple of years ago. “We used to get one or two orders by telephone per month for kokeshi through our online shop; but now we get more than 60 orders a month.”
Artfully lathed and hand painted, kokeshi dolls were first crafted during the Edo Period (1603-1867) in Northeastern Japan’s Tohoku Region, a famed hot-springs destination. They were originally made as souvenir toys for tourists and were thought to invoke the favor of the gods on the children who played with them, according to Yamada.
It wasn’t long, however, before their craftsmanship made them popular with adults. These “traditional” kokeshi continue to be handcrafted exclusively in Tohoku. Variations in shapes, patterns and colors often distinguish local styles. Those styles, along with the skill and tradition of making kokeshi, have been passed on from master to apprentice for generations, often within the same family.
Yamada says that today there are only about 200 traditional Kokeshi craftsmen in Japan; their average age is 60. And it can take more than a decade to master the skill, which includes selecting wood, lathing, sketching and painting.
“Traditional kokeshi making is a Japanese cultural asset that must be preserved, but there are not enough apprentices to take over this traditional craft,” he says. There is, however, more than one type of kokeshi to meet recent demands.
So-called modern-style kokeshi making developed after World War II throughout Japan, but primarily in the central prefecture of Gunma. This newer tradition is known for a more creative, free-style craftsmanship that employs a wider variety of shapes, designs and colors.
Although primarily a mainland tradition, contemporary kokeshi can be found as far south as Okinawa in the town of Haebaru where “miyarabi” kokeshi are modeled after Ryukyu princesses. Residents of Taiki Okinawa, a center for physically disabled persons, have been crafting and selling unique Okinawan-style kokeshi to support the facility ever since a craftsman passed the skill on there more than 30 years ago.
“Miyrarabi kokeshi represents the lifestyle of Okinawa and are painted with traditional (Ryukyu) patterns,” says Taiyo No Machi’s Kiyoshi Nakamoto. “Our kokeshi can be purchased at some of the U.S. bases in Okinawa and also other souvenir shops. All of our kokeshi are handmade and sketched by the artists at the center.”
The reach of kokeshi is said to be so far that it has even influenced modern matryoshka doll making in Russia after someone from their brought the dolls back as souvenirs.
There are those, however, for whom only traditional kokeshi from Tohoku will do.
John Treiber, base historian at Yokota Air Base, Japan, and his wife Naoko have amassed more than 400 kokeshi since they began collecting them in 2010. The onetime residents of Misawa Air Base, Japan, have since made several trips back to the Tohoku Region to visit kokeshi craftsmen and watch them ply their trade. For the Treibers, it is as much about where kokeshi are made as it is the dolls themselves.
“Tohoku is a beautiful area and these kokeshis are sort of representatives of Tohoku to me,” says John Treiber, who is also the blogger behind Kokeshi Adventures. “You know the person who has made the things that you own, you know how he did it, you know what it took to create these things, the conditions they live in, which are often fairly humble (and) out in middle of nowhere in the woods somewhere, the connection with “onsen” (hot spring). So there is more to it than just being a piece of folk art. Yes, it’s Japanese folk art and it’s beautiful. But it’s a whole package for me.”
Naoko Treiber agrees that the dolls are part of the deep connection her and her husband have with the region. However, she also gives a nod to what makes them so popular these days with casual admirers and avid collectors alike.
“I made many friends in Tohoku through kokeshi, and I like those relationships I was able to build through Kokeshi,” she says. “And of course, I like the cuteness of Kokeshi.”
Read about all things kokeshi in English on John Treiber's blog.
Finding the right kokeshi
Whether starting your own collection, or looking for the ideal souvenir, birthday, wedding or retirement gift, there are an endless supply and variety of kokeshi dolls to choose from. Here are some tips from those in the know.
Prices start from the equivalent of about $5 for a small doll to as high as $30,000 for an antique traditional kokeshi made by a famous craftsman. The average cost is about $15 to $30 for 4.1/2- to 9.1/2-inch doll.
“The price of kokeshi dolls vary depending on the craftsman, so it is hard to tell,” said Tsugaru Kokeshi Museum Manager Takuro Yamada. “Each craftsman has a different process for making kokeshi. Each handcrafted Kokeshi is one of a kind.
“If someone wants to purchase kokeshi, I suggest that they visit a kokeshi craftsman and touch a real one, see how it is made,” he added. “Then purchase the one you really like.”
“In order to get Kokeshi, you need to see them,” Treiber said. “If someone is at Misawa Air Base it’s easy because they are in the heart of the land of kokeshi. These craftsmen come to Tokyo sometimes, but it’s hard to find out when.”
It’s important to select your kokeshi in person because of the nuances in craftsmanship. It might even be said that finding the right one to purchase is an art form in itself. The Treibers both say that when they first started collecting, it was difficult to distinguish one doll from another.
“It looks like they all have the same face at first, but each one is slightly different because each one is handmade,” said Naoko Treiber, a self-professed armature collector.
“I look at the kokeshi faces. There is always one you look at and it just seems to call to you with its cute face.”
Her husband agrees about the nuances in craftsmanship.
“I used analogy of snowflakes, first they all look the same but we know that they are all different,” he added. “Funny thing is, what you like will start to evolve and change. I guess you become more sophisticated.”
There are also antique kokeshi that might be found in flea markets or specialized shops, but Treiber said he has little interest in this subgenre.
“I think a lot Americans think of kokeshi as antiques and they don’t make them anymore. And it’s not true,” he said. “I like to buy a new one that will become an antique in my house. I would much rather go and buy from a craftsman making them now.”
Where to see the dolls
Okinawan-style Kokeshi dolls for purchase. Address: 631 Kamizato, Haebaru cho, Shimajiri gun, Okinawa. For more details, (in Japanese), visit www.okisin.jp/taiki/index.html
Tsugaru Kokeshi Museum:
About 4,000 kokeshi dolls on display. Kokeshi can also be purchased on line (in Japanese). Address: 72-1 Aza Tomiyama, Hukuro, Koroishi-shi, Aomori. For details, visit tsugarukokeshi.com/index.html
Japan Kokeshi Museum:
About 5,000 kokeshi dolls on display. Address: Shitomae 74-2, Narukoonsen, Osaki-shi, Miyagi. For details, visit: www.kokesikan.com/english.htm
Shop with kokeshi and Russian matryoshka dolls. Address: 1-2-15 Hase, Kamakura, Kanagawa. For details, visit: www.kokeshka.com
Joyful Honda Kokeshi Fair: A large collection of Naruko kokeshi, kokeshi books, magazines, handcrafted wooden toys and Russian matryoshika dolls in the arts and crafts section (2F). Running now through March 3. Address: 442 Tonogaya Mizuhomachi, Nishitamagun, Tokyo (5-minute drive from Yokota Air Base)