Kokeshi are Japanese wooden dolls traditionally made for children, although they are becoming increasingly popular amongst shinnichi (Japanophiles) and collectors. It is said that they were originally sold to visitors to hot springs in the Tohoku region of Japan during the late Edo period (1600-1868), to supplement business and keep workers' hands busy during the winter months.
Since then, kokeshi doll making has come to be recognised as one of Japan's most vibrant folk arts. Traditionally comprising a simple trunk and enlarged head with a few thin, painted lines for detail, kokeshi designs have become increasingly intricate, diverse and faithful to the human form over the years, resulting in the attractive and relatively lifelike dolls you see today.
Contemporary interpretations of kokeshi are of a more rounded shape than their traditional counterparts, with richer colours and a greater emphasis on the facial features. They are often themed to celebrate a special occasion, reflect a hobby or profession, or emulate a fictional character, making them work particularly well as gifts.
Opinions vary greatly regarding the meaning of kokeshi dolls and their spiritual significance. Most interpretations are centred around children, with some believing that kokeshi represent the wish for a healthy child, and others that they bring children closer to the mountain spirits. Many people also agree that they were originally exchanged as tokens of friendship, with messages concealed within.
Every September, a kokeshi doll festival is held in Naruko, in which unwanted kokeshi are put on a pyre and burned. A visitor's account of this rather moving celebration can be found here.
Seasoned wood, typically taken from the cherry or mizuki tree, is cut into small, kokeshi-sized pieces before the edges are roughly shaved and rounded off. Each piece is then turned on a lathe and cut to shape using first a largish plane and then a smaller one.
Next, the craftsman files down the surface before drawing the design onto the face and body and then painting this on with a brush. Once the paint is dry, a layer of wax is applied to the surface, which is then polished to a fine sheen.
The Japanese Shop supplies a wide range of authentic Japanese kokeshi dolls, all made by hand using traditional methods and materials. Based on the traditional style without arms and legs, they are brought up to date with bright colours, playful designs and heaps of personality.
Click here to browse our range of Japanese dolls.