Kokeshi dolls originate from the Tohoku region of Northern Japan, an area well-known for its onsen (hot spring) resorts. These handmade wooden dolls are thought to date back to the early 19th century when kijiya (woodworkers), accustomed to making bowls and trays, began using their woodworking skills and lathes to make simple dolls to sell as toys and souvenirs to the onsen visitors. The dolls may originally have had a spiritual significance with the kokeshi representing a wish for a healthy child. It has also been suggested that kokeshi, with their round heads and limbless bodies probably made in an unpainted form originally, were used as massage tools by spa bathers. The name 'kokeshi' itself is thought to derive from a combination of names given to the wooden dolls in the various areas of their manufacture.
Using wood that has been seasoned for several months, typically from the dark cherry or the lighter mizuki tree, the kokeshi craftsman turns and cuts the doll on a lathe and polishes it to a fine finish. The head and body are generally turned separately then attached together by way of a plug. The kokeshi craftsman then finally hand paints on the face and the kimono pattern. An interesting video about how kokeshi are made today can be seen on www.mustlovejapan.com.
Kokeshi are generally bought by Japanese as mementos. In addition to being ornamental, they are also seen as charms to prevent fires or even ward off evil. Mizuki, the wood often used to make the kokeshi doll's face, literally translates as "water tree". It is a very moist wood and some Japanese believe that having a kokeshi in their home helps prevent fire.
Kokeshi, celebrated today as one of Japan's folk arts, are of two types, traditional and creative.
Traditional kokeshi, produced only in the six prefectures of Tohoku, are very simple in their design with round heads and cylindrical limbless bodies. The floral and linear patterns painted on their kimonos have been developed and passed down through generations of kokeshi makers and are distinctive to the area where they are made. The traditional kokeshi, shown in the picture here, come from Naruko.
Creative kokeshi, relatively new having only developed as an art form since the 2nd World War, retain the limbless kokeshi characteristic. However, they are more contemporary in their design with perhaps a more shapely body, added features such as hair, as well as colourful exquisitely patterned kimono. Creative kokeshi are 'created' by artists, and have features and styles unique to their own particular artist or creator. The majority of creative kokeshi are made in Gunma prefecture. The creative kokeshi, shown in the picture here, are a small selection of those sold by Japanya.
Kokeshi dolls have been popular in Japan for generations and this popularity can be seen in the vast range of sizes and variety of dolls available, both past and present. Japanya's collection of old kokeshi (not for sale) shown in the picture below, was built up by one 88 year old Japanese lady on her many visits to onsen. You can see that the unpainted wood (usually the faces of creative kokeshi) can darken with age. In addition to making beautiful ornaments, kokeshi have to some Japanese people a spiritual significance. Mizuki, the wood commonly used for making the kokeshi face, literally translates as 'water tree' and is thought to have fire-resistant properties. A kokeshi doll, therefore, is considered a lucky charm and is often bought in the belief that she will protect a home against fire. Happy kokeshi hunting!