Kokeshi dolls are small wooden dolls which were traditionally hand carved and hand painted by Japanese craftsman. Originally intended as gifts for children, in more recent times Japanese kokeshi dolls have become hugely popular as gifts and collectables for people of every age.
The traditional kokeshi doll comprises of a simple, smooth trunk with a large head. The hand painted detail was initially minimal but over the years the design of kokeshi dolls have become increasingly intricate, resulting in fun and colourful designs that reflect the human form.
The History of Japanese Kokeshi Dolls
Kokeshi dolls date as far back as the Edo period (1600 -1868) and originate in the Tohoku region of Northern Japan. This area is renowned for Japanese hot springs, traditionally referred to as onsen. Kokeshi dolls were first introduced during this time as an innovative way of earning an extra source of income for the local craftsman and Japanese woodworkers traditionally called kijiya. Instead of making traditional dinner bowls, plates and trays, the woodworkers began using their skills to produce simple dolls which could then be sold to the visitors of the onsen as toys or collectable souvenirs from their visit.
Visiting a Japanese onsen is often referred to as a spiritual and healing experience which uses the minerals from the naturally occurring hot springs to heal the body, mind and soul. The experience is still hugely popular with locals, nearby city-dwellers and tourists in Japan today. Our winter travel guide offers tips and advice on what to expect when visiting a Japanese onsen so you can immerse yourself in an age-old tradition of Japan. The traditional design of kokeshi dolls, with their large round heads and limbless bodies, has also led to the suggestion that kokeshi dolls were also used as massage tools for spa bathers to massage key pressure points whilst enjoying the warming benefits of the hot water springs.
The term ‘kokeshi’ derives from the word ko which means small and keshi which is the traditional name for dolls in Japan. Therefore, kokeshi loosely translates as “small dolls”.
The Traditional Craftsmanship of Kokeshi Dolls
Using wood that has been seasoned for up to year and taken from the darker cherry or lighter wood of the mizuki tree, the craftsman cuts his material into smaller, kokeshi-sized pieces which are roughly shaved and rounded off so they are ready to manipulate. The wood is then placed on a lathe and cut into a more definite kokeshi shape of either a trunk or a round head, polishing it into a smooth finish.
The craftsman usually works on each part separately, sketching the design onto the face and body and going over this with a paintbrush and hand painting over the initial markings. Once the design is finished and the paint is dry, a layer of wax is applied to the surface, which is then polished to a fine sheen. As each part has been designed and polished separately, they are then reconnected using a plug and a beautifully authentic Japanese kokeshi doll has been created.
For more information about kokeshi dolls, our helpful kokeshi doll guide explores the history of Japanese kokeshi dolls in more detail and highlights the spiritual significance and symbolic meanings of the traditional wooden dolls.
We stock a beautiful range of Japanese kokeshi dolls, all made with traditional materials and handcrafted by Japanese artisans and woodworkers. Based on the traditional style with a contemporary and a creative twist, our range consists of bright colours, intricate designs which give every kokeshi doll their very own personality.
Perfect as thoughtful gifts for family, friends and loved ones or a collectable for yourself, there is a Japanese kokeshi doll suited to every person and every occasion. Our recent arrival of new stock consisting of over 80 kokeshi dolls means you have even more designs to choose from, the only problem you will have is picking a favourite!