edited to add, there seems to be some confusion as to what kokeshi are! They are wooden folk toys/ crafts/ dolls. Originally kids toys, then collectors items/ souvenirs/ home decoration -- they do not have any spiritual / talismanic meaning, they are not a kind of totem pole, they do not represent children dead or alive, they do not represent a god or a deity, they are not Shinto in nature, although they are worshipped in this little town because Naruko is the home of the highest concentration of kokeshi ateliers (the same way broken sewing needles are worshipped at Asakusa Senjoji, as a way to say, "thank you!") They are, quite simply, folk craft/ dolls, but are used as interior design items, to decorate the house. Most of all (for me and many backpackers nowadays) they are connected to Tohoku onsen tourism, as for the most part you actually need to go to these AMAZING onsen villages to get them, so people hop around Tohoku, using these dolls as an excuse to travel to these beautiful villages.
Originally, the hot springs in the region catered to farmers, who would visit rudimentary inns and use the onsen to relax or revive themselves during harsh winters. Now, however, the agricultural clientele has been largely replaced by tourists, many of whom visit to retrace the footsteps of 17th-century haiku poet Matsuo Basho, who famously passed through the region when compiling his travelogue “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” Others also flock to the region to view its autumn leaves, a spectacular sight that fills the gorge with vivid vermilion and yellows.
Lately, though, there is another type of visitor — mostly young women, often traveling in pairs or small groups — who are here for one purpose: to check out some of Naruko’s most well-known residents — the humble kokeshi.
Kokeshi are simple hand-crafted dolls that are traditionally made in the Tohoku region’s hot-spring villages. Carved out of local wood varieties — maple, cherry and dogwood — they are characterized by their limbless cylindrical shape, delicate hand-painted features and decorative shades of yellow, red, green and purple.
Naruko is a kokeshi production hub with the highest concentration of kokeshi ateliers in Japan and the biggest kokeshi museum, housing around 5,000 dolls. To an almost comical degree, kokeshi motifs adorn all manner of objects across the village — from manhole covers and hand rails to telephone boxes and even fire trucks. On every street you’ll find a kokeshi studio, while many ryokans (Japanese inns) have doll collections — the display at the Naruko hotel, the largest lodging in Naruko, which was established in 1873, is nothing short of formidable. All the gift shops, of course, also offer a variety of kokeshi-themed goods, including tenugui hand towels and lanterns.
It’s not surprising then, that Naruko also hosts the best opportunity to see many regional variations of kokeshi dolls in one place. The village’s kokeshi festival on Sept. 5 and 6 is the largest in Japan, and artisans from all over Tohoku come together to enter dolls in a major competition and sell their wares. As the evening sets in, a touching, if not odd, ceremony takes place the village’s Kokeshi Shrine. Old, unwanted dolls that have been brought to the shrine are blessed by a Shinto priest before being dramatically burned in a ceremonial fire. Poignant as it sounds, though, one local described the ceremony as way of saying to the old dolls: “You tried your best, thank you for your service!”
If you do feel the urge to “rescue” an old kokeshi, though, take a trip to the Japan Kokeshi Museum, which holds an auction of vintage dolls during the festival weekend and this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that the price of the dolls can be very reasonable, cheap even. On my visit, I was lucky enough to win a few dolls that caught my eye with bids of only ¥300.
With so many dolls — all laid out at the auction — it’s perhaps useful to know that there are 11 types of kokeshi, each based on region and with their own characteristics. Of these, the Naruko ones are the most recognizable. Usually made from creamy colored dogwood that fades to a rich chestnut hue as it ages, the dolls have classical facial features of slender eyes, small U-shaped noses and scarlet lips.
Their straight bodies with slightly tapered waists are typically embellished with red and green chrysanthemum motifs, and their heads can be turned, the friction making a distinct squeaking noise.
Attaching the head requires a technique of great skill and dexterity, something that is worthwhile seeing done in person.
Yasuo Okazaki is a third generation kokeshi kōjin (artisan) with a rustic studio just five minutes from Naruko Onsen Station. Like in many kokeshi ateliers, the work station is next to the window, so passersby can watch Okazaki in action. As a rokuro (lathe) spins, Okazaki picks up an iron chisel-like tool and begins to carve. Under his skillful hand, the wood appears surprisingly malleable and watching the kokeshi unfold is hypnotic.
“Prior to kokeshi making, our trade was woodworking, and our forefathers made bowls and trays. The birthplace of woodworking is Tsutsui Shrine in Higashiomi City, Shiga Prefecture,” Okazaki explains as he carves. “The word workers had a license to cut the trees on the mountains for their products, and they would pay the government a set amount every year. They made dolls for their kids, and the kokeshi tradition came from there.”
The history of kokeshi has not been well documented, so their origins are unclear, but it’s believed that the first kokeshi were made during the Edo Period (1603-1868) in the Sakunami onsen region. It later spread to the rest of northern Japan and woodworkers began to focus primarily on kokeshi production, rather than kitchenware, as the dolls started becoming a form of home decoration.
During the postwar Showa Era (1926-1989), the dolls became popular souvenirs for newlyweds on their honeymoon in Naruko, and around the same time, kokeshi fanatics would travel around the Tohoku region amassing huge quantities of the dolls, some collecting by size, shape and type.
Mastering the craft of kokeshi takes around 10 years, as the artisans typically do most of the work themselves, from peeling the bark off the wood, making the tools, polishing the wood, painting the motifs and faces, and selling the final product.
Okazaki recalls the arduous learning curve, “I would practice on eggs or other round things like a cylinder with paper wrapped around it,” he tells me. “I would also have to make several sets of tools a day, as I would break them while I was training.”
Such apprenticeship periods has made the task of finding successors one of the difficulties now facing the industry — the youngest kokeshi maker in Naruko is Yoshinobu Kakizawa who is his 40s, and many artisans like Okazaki currently don’t have apprentices. Sadly, as overseas holidays became cheaper and the norm for Japanese vacationers, visiting countryside onsen towns fell out of vogue.
The recent interest in the industry, though good for the area, has an unfortunate background. Tohoku was the hardest hit region of Japan during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, after which the kokeshi became a symbol of sorts for the area. Galleries in Tokyo, including those at Tokyo’s Parco shopping mall and Claska hotel, held kokeshi exhibitions, and Japanese media coverage helped create a boom that continues today. Recently, fashion retailer Beams oversaw an indigo kokeshi project, which sold out instantly, and artisans in regions as far as Aomori now have orders for the months ahead. Okazaki explains that it is “mostly young women in their 20s and 30s, nicknamed ‘kokeshi jōshi‘ (kokeshi women)” who are now collecting them.
While the kokeshi artisans are somewhat surprised at their recent wave of popularity, the charming dolls are appealing to these new fans in a multitude of ways. Their demure facial expressions are often said to have the same qualities as contemporary kawaii (cute) characters. Then there’s the beauty of the wood grain and the warmth of handmade goods.
The small contemporary types of kokeshi, designed by craftsmen to fit the new market are humorous and sweet — they sit in baths or wear berets, some with manga-style eyes and long eyelashes, others are even shaped like cats. But it is hoped that these will trigger the buyers’ interest in the craft and that they will learn to also appreciate the more traditional types.
For Okazaki, the appeal of kokeshi is beautifully simple: “When you come home from work and you are tired, kokeshi makes you feel healed and comforted.”