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Kokeshi Dolls: Meaning, Hands-on Workshops, and Where to Buy

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Kokeshi dolls are a popular souvenir from Japan. In this article, we delve into the cultural importance of Kokeshi, their origins, Kokeshi doll festivals, shops where you can find them for purchase, opportunities for engaging in creative workshops, and more!

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Kokeshi dolls are wooden Japanese dolls carved and painted by hand that have become a treasured part of Northern Japan's rich cultural heritage.

With a history dating back to the Edo period (1603-1868), Kokeshi dolls and their artisans have inspired people across Japan, creating Kokeshi festivals, modern-style dolls, and even serving as the inspiration behind the bobble-headed Mii characters belonging to Nintendo!

Discover the historical progression of Kokeshi dolls, their various types, exciting craftwork shops to visit, as well as where to buy Kokeshi dolls as souvenirs.

A Guide to Japan's Kokeshi Dolls

1. What Are Kokeshi Dolls?
2. Types of Kokeshi Dolls
3. Where to Buy Kokeshi Dolls
4. Kokeshi Doll Painting Workshops
- Akiu Traditional Craft Village, Miyagi
- Tanaka Kokeshi Shop in Zao Onsen
- Matsuya Souvenir Shop, Fukushima
- Sakurai Kokeshi Doll Shop in Naruko Onsen
- Sugawaraya in Naruko Onsen
5. Where to See Old Traditional Kokeshi Dolls
- Japan Toy Museum in Himeji
- Zao Kokeshi Museum
- The National Kokeshi Doll Festival in Naruko Onsen
- Michinoku Kokeshi Doll Festival in Yamagata
- The Main Street in Naruko Onsen

1. What Are Kokeshi Dolls?

Kokeshi Dolls

Photo by Pixta
A beautiful ancient craft that originates from the Tohoku region (northern Japan), Kokeshi dolls are handmade wooden dolls that have captivated the hearts of both young and old for centuries.

Dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1868), Kokeshi dolls were originally designed as toys for children. However, as time has passed, many recognize them as part of Japan's rich cultural heritage, making them a sought-after collectible item.

These wooden figurines come in various sizes, each traditionally featuring a large round head and a tall body without arms and legs. Kokeshi dolls are considered auspicious toys, symbolizing bountiful harvests and wishes for good fortune.

Once carved, the skilled artisans known as Kijishi paint the dolls with their signature style and attributes, often depicting a Kimono-clad child or woman. Painted patterns featured on the dolls' bodies can include floral designs and geometric patterns, usually created using brilliant reds, greens, and purples.

2. Types of Kokeshi Dolls

Kokeshi Dolls

Photo by Pixta
Created in six regions of Northern Japan, Kokeshi dolls exhibit charming features and expressions unique to the area they originate from!

A prime example of this is the Naruko Kokeshi Doll, whose origins can be traced in Naruko Onsen, a famous hot spring resort in Miyagi. Arguably one of the most famous of its kind, the Naruko Kokeshi is distinguished by the red and green painted chrysanthemums on its body, its large head, and hourglass body where the shoulders slightly protrude, narrowing into the waist and fanning out at the base.

Kokeshi Dolls, A Symbol of Japans Ancient Craftmanship: History, Types and Where to Buy!

Photo by Pixta

The Naruko Kokeshi doll's head makes a squeaking sound when turned, which guarantees amusement for children in Miyagi.

Kokeshi dolls were created by village folk who resided around and near hot spring towns, creating a strong cultural connection to onsen areas in Tohoku. The very first Kokeshi doll was made and sold at Togatta Onsen, just a stone's throw away from Zao!

In total, there are 12 types of traditional Kokeshi dolls, each with patterns painted on its body and unique facial expressions that capture the individual personality envisioned by each artisan.

From relaxed and gentle to mischievous-looking or elegant, the slight adjustments of crescent-shaped eyes, different-shaped noses, eyebrows, and lips can make all the difference!

Kokeshi Dolls, A Symbol of Japans Ancient Craftmanship: History, Types and Where to Buy!

Photo by Pixta

Besides the afore-mentioned Naruko Kokeshi, the other 11 styles include the Togatta Kokeshi, Yajiro Kokeshi doll, Sakunami Kokeshi, Hijiori Kokeshi, Tsugaru Kokeshi, Yamagata Sakunami Kokeshi, Zao Kokeshi, Tsuchiyu-kei Kokeshi, Nambu Kokeshi, Nakanosawa Kokeshi, and Kijiyama Kokeshi.

In recent years, people often encounter more modern-day Kokeshi at shops known as Usaburo Kokeshi, recognizable by their thick black 3D hair often designed in a bob cut style.

3. Where to Buy Kokeshi Dolls as Souvenirs

Asakusa Souvenirs

Photo by Pixta

Kokeshi dolls can be easily purchased in Japan, whether you are taking a trip up north and visiting one of the spots mentioned in this article, or simply wish to bring one of these stunning creations home as a souvenir. There is a wide range of shops to explore, from the online shop Wanobee to modern-style Kokeshi dolls at Usaburo Kokeshi in Gunma.

For those seeking traditional Kokeshi, we recommend a visit to Shimanuki Souvenir and Kokeshi Shop in Sendai. The store offers excellently crafted goods and is located in the heart of Sendai, an amazing city brimming with history, charm, and scenic beauty!

If you find yourself in Tokyo's beloved Asakusa, be sure to explore Nakamise-dori, a vibrant shopping street that showcases Kokeshi dolls in some of its shops, making the area ideal for Kokeshi fans with tight schedules.

Japan Traditional Crafts Aoyama Square in Tokyo's Aoyama district and Oriental Bazaar in Harajuku also offer an extensive array of Japanese souvenirs, including Kokeshi dolls.

4. Kokeshi Doll Painting Workshops

Kokeshi Dolls

Immerse yourself in the artistry of Kokeshi doll making by becoming an artisan for a day at these amazing crafting workshops!

Offering a hands-on experience with this traditional craft, these shops provide a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with professionals in designing a one-of-a-kind Kokeshi doll. Participants can paint the doll's expressions and patterns, crafting a personalized piece to take home as a cherished souvenir, encapsulating memories of their extraordinary journey.

1. Akiu Traditional Craft Village

Kokeshi Dolls

Located in the lush green hot spring village of Akiu Onsen town in Miyagi, the Akiu Traditional Craft Village springs to life each day with creativity and craftsmanship.

Brimming with traditional crafts, skilled artisans host seven workshops ranging from fabric weaving and dyeing to wooden crafts like Kokeshi. Visitors can create unique pieces guided by specialists, explore the workshops, purchase goods, and engage with artists to learn about the history and techniques of their craft firsthand.

Official website: Akiu Traditional Craft Village

2. Tanaka Kokeshi Shop

kokeshi

Photo from: Zao Onsen in Yamagata: Stunning Hot Springs and Mystical Snowy Trees
A perfect addition to a trip to Zao Onsen in Yamagata, the Tanaka Kokeshi Shop is an ideal destination for those interested in shopping for and painting Kokeshi dolls.

With 50 years of experience in crafting Kokeshi, the shop showcases a variety of purchasable Kokeshi dolls. In partnership with the Zao Tourism Center, visitors who book the workshop can collect their Kokeshi doll from the tourism center at Zao Onsen Bus Terminal and enjoy a guided painting session to create their unique Kokeshi masterpiece.

3. Kokeshi Doll Painting at Matsuya Souvenir Shop

Kokeshi Dolls

Photo by Pixta
Situated just a stone's throw away from Fukushima City, the Matsuya Souvenir Shop is nestled in Fukushima's charming hot spring town, Tsuchiyu Onsen. Known for its natural beauty and hot springs, the town holds significance in the history of Kokeshi, being the birthplace of one of the three main Kokeshi doll styles, the Tsuchiya Kokeshi.

Visitors have the opportunity to observe artisans crafting these whimsical dolls and even try their hand at painting a Kokeshi themselves.

The shop offers a wide array of products from the region, making it an excellent stop for souvenir shopping.

Official website: Matsuya Souvenir Shop

4. The Sakurai Kokeshi Doll Shop

Found on Naruko Onsen's renowned Kokeshi Street, a location honoring the skilled Kokeshi artisans and their establishments in the vicinity, the Sakurai Kokeshi Shop stands out as a must-visit when exploring this historic town. Originating in the Edo period, the Sakurai family, with their centuries-old legacy, are both shop owners and artisans who deeply embody craftsmanship as a way of life.

Visitors can partake in a painting experience at the shop while having the opportunity to meet this legendary family.

Official website: Sakurai Kokeshi Shop

5. Kokeshi Doll Carving Experience at Sugawaraya

Kokeshi Dolls

Photo by Pixta
Nestled in Naruko Onsen, the Sugawaraya workshop has been turning its wheels for over 70 years!

Visitors can immerse themselves in a hands-on Kokeshi experience that goes beyond painting; they can try their hand at carving Kokeshi dolls.

Under the expert guidance of shop owner Mr. Sugawara, participants get to experience the art of being a Kokeshi artisan firsthand, from crafting the doll from scratch to applying the final touches and intricate paint details. For more information, please visit the website below!

Official website: Sugawaraya

5. Where to See Old Traditional Kokeshi Dolls

1. Japan Toy Museum

Kokeshi Dolls

Established to preserve Japanese toys from various historical periods and cater to collectors, the Japan Toy Museum, located in Himeji, is an excellent destination showcasing not only Kokeshi dolls but also a diverse collection of retro toys.

Situated just a short distance from Himeji Castle, the museum features approximately 90,000 toys from Japan and around the globe. It has received two stars in the Michelin Green Guide.

Visitors can delight in observing retro toys that were popular in Japan, perhaps even rediscovering nostalgic items from their own childhood. This museum is a fantastic addition for those exploring the captivating city of Himeji and is especially appealing to Kokeshi enthusiasts.

2. Zao Kokeshi Museum

Kokeshi Dolls

Photo by Pixta
A Kokeshi lover's paradise! Serving as a mecca for all things Kokeshi, the Zao Kokeshi Museum houses Japan's largest collection of these iconic dolls, with an impressive array of 5,500 artifacts originating from the Tohoku region.

Visitors can engage in painting Kokeshi dolls, observe skilled artisans in action, marvel at thousands of Kokeshi dolls on display, and browse goods at the museum shop.

The museum is easily identifiable by its gigantic Kokeshi doll murals adorning the front facade. Guests can reach the museum by taking a 10-minute bus ride from the Togatta Onsen bus stop or a 20-minute bus journey from Zao.

Official website: Zao Kokeshi Museum

3. The National Kokeshi Doll Festival

The National Kokeshi Doll Festival, also known as the All Japan Kokeshi Festival, is held every September in Naruko Onsen, a town renowned for its Kokeshi-themed streets. The event gathers Kokeshi artisans from across the country to honor this exquisite craftsmanship.

Spanning three consecutive days, the festival commences with a Kokeshi doll memorial service held on the eve of the main event at Onsen Shrine. During this ceremony, damaged dolls are respectfully placed on a pyre while music plays, and attendees offer thoughts and prayers, recognizing the artisan's dedication and the joy these dolls once brought to families.

The following day features a spiritual dedication ceremony where Kokeshi are ceremonially presented at the shrine, accompanied by wishes for the well-being of the Kokeshi and the prosperity of the craftsmanship industry. Subsequently, the festival unfolds with numerous Kokeshi dolls showcased by artisans in vibrant markets, workshops, and Kokeshi doll competitions over the next two days.

On the evening of the first full day, visitors can witness a spectacular sight at the Kokeshi doll festival, as larger-than-life Kokeshi figures animate the streets of Naruko Onsen, dancing to the lively rhythms of music alongside enthusiastic participants.

Location: Naruko Onsenkyo in Osaki City, Miyagi Prefecture
Official website: All Japan Kokeshi Festival

4. Michinoku Kokeshi Doll Festival

Kokeshi Dolls

Photo by Pixta
The Michinoku Kokeshi Festival is typically held towards the end of the year in early December in Yamagata at the Yamagata Big Wing event venue. In 2023, the festival was held December 2 - 3.

This festival attracts artisans and Kokeshi fans from various locations to celebrate the art of these traditional dolls. Visitors have the opportunity to buy Kokeshi dolls and other varieties such as Daruma, engage in painting Kokeshi, and take part in raffles and competitions.

Venue: Yamagata Big Wing 1F, Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture

5. The Main Street in Naruko Onsen

Kokeshi Dolls

As mentioned earlier in this article, Naruko Onsen stands out as a hub for Kokeshi enthusiasts, hosting the annual National Kokeshi Festival, featuring a Kokeshi Museum, and renowned for its Naruko Kokeshi dolls. The town is teeming with these iconic dolls, so much so that it has its own dedicated district known as Kokeshi Street!

Wandering along Kokeshi Street, visitors can explore artisan workshops and observe the intricate craft of Kokeshi-making. The town immerses visitors in a unique atmosphere where human-sized Kokeshi figures adorn the streets, from Kokeshi-themed post boxes to statues, signs, and even phone booths, creating an enchanting ambiance that might make you feel like you're being watched!

Take a Kokeshi Doll as a Souvenir from Japan

Kokeshi dolls have a distinctive simple elegance. Made from wood, usually by hand, they are a product of Japanese artisans' creativity and imagination. They make excellent souvenirs from Japan so how about picking one from a souvenir shop?

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Kate_T

Tokyo,Japan

Assistant editor at MATCHA since 2023, Kate is a photographer who enjoys traveling Japan's hidden gems and adventuring off the beaten path. Living in Japan since 2018, she has traveled across different areas of Japan. From indulging in Aomori’s apple pies and fiery festivals to exploring the quaint charm of Nagasaki’s cat-filled streets she is always searching for new areas full of atmospheric beauty, festivals, and seasonal events to capture on camera.Assistant editor at MATCHA since 2023, Kate is a photographer who enjoys traveling Japan's hidden gems and adventuring off the beaten path.

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