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Kokeshi Doll - April 2009 Newsletter


Created with a simplicity of design that captures the essence of Japanese art, the wooden Kokeshi dolls that we have selected at Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen are delightful versions of a traditional art form that has existed in the region of  Northern Japan since the later part of the Edo period (1603-1867).  

The original and traditional Kokeshi doll is believed to have developed from an idea of the local “kijiya” or woodworkers of the Northern Tohoku region of Japan. They were the expert wood craftsmen of the area and specialized in making wooden utensils and bowls for everyday use.  The Tohoku region was then and continues today to be a popular destination for tourists wishing to soak in the local hot springs and stay overnight at the delightful inns that offer delicious food and relaxation. The woodworkers came up with the novel idea of earning extra income by making simple, wooden dolls that tourists could purchase as souvenirs of their hot springs vacation. It was not uncommon to see the tourists using the round head of the doll to pound their stiff shoulders as they took a long soak in the spas.   These simple dolls soon began to gain popularity, as each northern hot spring resort developed their signature style and collecting the dolls became an affordable status symbol to those who were fortunate to travel to the hot springs or for the lucky recipient of a lovely souvenir.

Because the Kokeshi doll is made of wood, they can withstand some handling and are not only to “look at” or display.  The Japanese farm children of yesteryear were often encouraged to play with them as it was believed that the sight of kids playing with the dolls would please the gods and would promote an abundant harvest. The traditional Kokeshi dolls of the Naruko hot springs area were made to emit a crying sound when the head was twisted, which added to its distinctive style and charming character.

The traditional version of the Kokeshi dolls are hand crafted from two pieces of cured wood; cherry is used for its darker color and dogwood is very popular as it is a softer wood and sometimes Japanese maple is also used. The wood is usually seasoned from one to up to five years to become perfect for carving. The cured wood is then shaped by hand powered lathes.  The traditional Kokeshi style continues to be hand made in the northern Tohoku region of Japan and predominantly created within the six prefectures of this region.  The traditional Kokeshi design is limited to a basic limbless body with a round head attached to it; however the twelve major styles of this region are instantly recognizable by experts through their individual interpretations of this basic design on the finished doll. . It is up to the skill of the artisan to create a beautiful doll through their expert carving and hand painted designs.  Some artisans have become famous and highly collectible due to their skill in painting the delicate, one of a kind faces and are sought out for their recognizable style that embraces local colors and techniques.

In early September, the Naruko Hot Springs of the Tohoku region hosts a nationally attended Kokeshi doll making contest for both traditional and modern “creative” styles. Artisans from all over Japan gather to compete in this Kokeshi making competition and the Prime Minister of Japan awards the Grand Prize winner.  The town of Naruko has become so established as the capital of the Kokeshi, the main street is called Kokeshi Dori and is lined with shops that are operated by the local Kokeshi artisans.

After WWII, a modern school of Kokeshi dolls was created which is now known as the “Creative Kokeshi”. In Japanese, they are also known as “Shingata” Kokeshi, which translates to “new style” Kokeshi. These dolls are made of the same wood used in the traditional styles and the shaping of the dolls is the same way as the traditional dolls, using a lathe. However, the similarities end there. Unlike the traditional dolls, in Creative Kokeshi design there are no limits placed on the shape of the wooden dolls and the artists are encouraged to add their imaginative touch to create distinctive and charming versions of Creative Kokeshi through their use of various shapes and styles. The painting of the faces and the clothing is up to the artist’s imagination and this freedom allows for a wide variety of inspirations and creative applications. In this genre of Kokeshi dolls, you will see girl and boy versions, elder versions, pigtails, hair buns and even jewelry decorated Kokeshi. It is also not unusual to see Kokeshi dolls with more Western appearing features and coloring. The possibilities are endless and the innovation of this new style has resurrected the art of Kokeshi across Japan.  This type of Creative Kokeshi doll allows the artist to remove themselves from the traditional methods and ideas passed down from generations and instead express their own unique style in a modern and individual way. Both the artists and fans have embraced this freedom of expression and have elevated this style of Kokeshi to become very popular among collectors. 

In Japan, Kokeshi dolls have long been associated with the symbol of youth and are often presented to an expectant mother as a gift.  Sometimes they are even purchased for sad occasions, such as in remembrance of a child who passed away. As they capture the simplicity of youth in their charming appearance, they have withstood the test of time and continue to be a popular collectible in Japan and around the world.

At Mrs. Lin's Kitchen, we offer a wide variety of carefully selected Kokeshi dolls for your enjoyment and collection. Many of our dolls are perfect for housewarming gifts, weddings, anniversaries and commemorating special occasions. As with any collectible, it will be hard to stop at just one, and we are happy to provide you with a wonderful assortment of styles and designs that will make your collection extra special.

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Kokeshi Wooden Doll with Red Kimono and Bow (7449)

Adorable Wooden Japanese Doll (7447)

Traditional Wedding Day Kokeshi Bride and Groom (7386)

Grandparent Kokeshi Dolls (7017)

Kokeshi Doll in Red Cherry Blossom Robe (7011)

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