|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
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.
|On this map, the Tohoku region is yellow,|
prefecture number 7 is Fukushima, the
site of the earthquake, tsunami, and
the nuclear power plant.
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.
|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.|
|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.
|More creative kokeshi. I love the way they decorated|
the body to look like a kimono.