Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Memories of Japan: Kokeshi Dolls

Two of my traditional kokeshi, standing next
to a Kamakura-bori bowl and my
collection of wooden tops from Japan.
Photo: Linda LeBoutillier/Random Thoughts

Today is Wednesday, December 18, 2013.

Just about every foreigner who lives in Japan for any length of time starts to collect something.  I fell in love with kokeshi dolls.  I only have ten of them left, but they all have a place on my bookshelves.  While in Japan, I began to study a bit about the various kinds of traditional kokeshi, and learned that they are all made in the Tohoku region of Japan.  That's the northeastern area of the main island, Honshu.  (The word Tohoku means "east-north" – typically backwards to the way we say this in English.)

Map of the prefectures (states) of Japan. The ones in green are
the Tohoku area, where traditional kokeshi are made.  The
blue are is where many creative (modern) kokeshi come from.
Tohoku is the area where the gigantic, magnitude 9 earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011, which unleashed a giant, killer tsunami, killing nearly 16,000 people and wiping out whole towns.  These events damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant, which is basically in the process of a meltdown, leaking radiation everywhere, but especially into the Pacific Ocean.  It is the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, and some are calling it worse than Chernobyl ever was.

On this map, the Tohoku region is yellow,
prefecture number 7 is Fukushima, the
site of the earthquake, tsunami, and
the nuclear power plant.

I didn't get to visit the Tohoku area as much as I wanted to while I was there, but I did get to stay at an onsen (hot spring) spa and tour a nearby kokeshi factory.  I have even thought, over the years, of making a special trip back to Japan for the express purpose of visiting the various hot springs of Tohoku and collecting more kokeshi, but I was never able to realize my plans.  These days, I wouldn't go near that area unless I was wearing a hazmat suit, so I will have to cross that particular thing off my "bucket list." 

The tourism industry is big in Tohoku, with its many hot spring spas.  The funny thing about the spas is that they are not just a place to stay, they are the entire destination, and tourists rarely ever actually leave the spa during their stay.  If you do leave, you basically go shopping for souvenirs, and the most famous type of souvenir in the region is kokeshi

One collector has a sample of all of the traditional
types of kokeshi. Notice that the way the face and
body are painted is different for each style.
Traditional kokeshi dolls are made by artisans known as kijiji, woodworkers, who probably started out making wooden household utensils, such as trays, bowls, and chopsticks.  At some point, they began to make little wooden dolls that could be sold to tourists who came to the onsen (hot spring spas) in the area. They have long, slender limbless bodies and round heads. Although you can knock them over, they are surprisingly stable, and some Japanese will say that they can withstand a small earthquake without falling over. The body and head are formed with a lathe, a machine on which a block of wood is mounted and shaped into cylinders for the body and slightly elongated spheres for head.  The wood is shaped and sanded on the lathe, then hand panted using black, red, green, yellow or purple. .  The head and body are made separately, and then joined.  Some kokeshi are also painted with clear lacquer. Some of the more modern "creative style" kokeshi are also given designs by carving or an etching process. 
The artisan's name is painted or stamped
on the bottom of the doll.

The traditional kokeshi were always made by only one artisan, from start to finish, from cutting down the trees to drying the wood, shaping it on a lathe, sanding, carving, and painting it. The artist's name is either painted or stamped on the bottom of the doll.  Nowadays most artisans have someone else cut and dry the wood for them. By contrast, most of the modern "creative" kokeshi are made factory style, with several different workers each doing a different job.  All kokeshi are unique, and no one doll is exactly like any other.  Kokeshi can be made from dogwood, or the wood of pear trees, cherry trees, and Japanese maples.

The two dolls at right were made by a father and son of the Abe family in the Zao Takayu style.  The one on top was made by the father, who is no longer living, and the bottom one was made by his son.  Both of them have a distinctive "surprised" look and wide open eyes.

There are about 10 types of traditional kokeshi (although some people list only 9 and some list 11), depending on where they are made.  Some families hand down the art of making kokeshi from father to son (and, occaasionally, daughter), and collectors know the names of the more well-known artists.  Many collectors have a favorite type, but a lot of people try to get one from each traditional type.  The most dominant type is the Naruko style.  Some people are really good at telling the styles apart. I can tell a traditional from a "creative" type, but that's just about it. Here is a site that shows pictures of some of the most popular traditional types.

The purists have a low opinion of the "creative" kokeshi, but the fact is that they outsell the traditional ones, and are especially favored by foreign tourists.  They come in a wider variety of shapes and colors.  Most "creative" styles are made outside of the Tohoku area. 

Naruko style traditional kokehsi. You can see the way the head
is painted on top.
Old man and woman "creative" style kokeshi.
I found a couple of fabulous videos for you to look at. The first one is very well done - wordless, and set to music - it takes you through the process of making a kokeshi from start to finish.  The second one is slightly longer, but you can hear the artist talking about his product and the process.  If you can stand to watch it until about the middle or so, where he talks about putting on the head, what he says is that the head has a peg at the bottom and the top of the body has a hole.  The hole is just slightly smaller than the peg, but he fits the end of the peg into the opening of the hole, then turns on his lathe and jams the peg into the hole while the body is spinning.  That way, the head will stay on tight.  He was speaking very rapidly, but I noticed that he was using especially polite Japanese - probably because he was being videotaped and talking to "customers." 

Girl in kimono creative style kokeshi,with a little
wooden sign giving the artist's name.
Notice the head and body are all one piece of wood.
They say that in spite of the devastation from the earthquake and resulting tsunami, and even in spite of the possibility of radiation poisoning, tourism in Tohoku is coming back, and kokeshi are part of their process of rebuilding the local economy.  In some ways, people from the Tohoku area like to think of kokeshi as their goodwill ambassadors around the world.  :-)

More creative kokeshi. I love the way they decorated
the body to look like a kimono.

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