I Love Onsen Kokeshi 我愛溫泉人形小芥子

I Love Onsen Kokeshi

What child does not love dolls? I believe that there is a child inside all of us, however old we are. A beautiful toy can be as valuable as any material possession. A doll is your friend, it shares your memories and often it gives you memories of its own. I found many Kokeshi friends when I was in Japan and each is connected with a special memory. Read on . . .

Twenty years ago, as a fresh faced journalist, like a young child taking its first steps, I visited Japan, eager to discover new places, things and topics that I could write about. My first port of call was Aomori in the Tohoku (northeast) of Japan. It was here that I discovered Kokeshi. When I first saw them I was fascinated by these small wooden dolls but knew nothing about their history or the story they told. Here is what I discovered.

It is believed that Kokeshi dolls were first produced in the latter part of the Edo Era (1603-1867). Although some say that they are a natural derivation of toys of an earlier period, it is commonly thought that woodwork artisans of the time, specializing in household utensils such as trays and bowls, began to make small dolls in the winter to sell as souvenirs to people who came to bathe in the hot springs near their villages. Initially the dolls were simple carvings formed into the shapes of small girls. Since then, Kokeshi have become popular for their depiction of feminine beauty.

It is not only their form that has changed with time. Early Kokeshi dolls were thought to be very good for young teething babies. Much as the modern baby has a teething ring, so young Japanese infants chewed on small wooden dolls. Later as entrepreneurs came to realize that the numerous hot springs in Tohoku were a valuable commodity, more and more small establishments popped up around the area drawing what was commonly known as ‘silver haired people’ to bathe in the healing waters. These bathers liked to use the Kokeshi dolls to tap their shoulders as a form of massage. Later still Kokeshi dolls became the playthings of poor children who received these toys from parents or friends who couldn’t afford the more expensive porcelain variety. Approximately seventy years ago, Kokeshi dolls made the transition from countryside to city. At the same time, they crossed the divide between toy and collectible as increasing numbers of adults recognized the craftsmanship in the small wooden carvings.

Making Kokeshi dolls is a skilled art that in present times has evolved to be a craft that is handed down from master to apprentice. Gone are the days when a country dweller plucked a branch from the tree and whittled it down to form the shape of a small girl. Typically Kokeshi dolls are only made from the wood of the dogwood or cherry trees. They are reasonably quickly reduced to the basic shape and then lovingly handcrafted with hair, eyes, nose and kimono painted on in intricate detail. When I visited a famous hot spring in Hanamaki in Iwate Prefecture, I was lucky enough to be introduced to a Kokeshi master who explained some of the process to me. He told me that the type and quality of the wood is very important when making the dolls. Depending on this, the wood needs to be dried for between one and five years until it is ready to be carved. If it is to be made in a factory by a machine, it can be made in as little as a few minutes. A skilled artisan, however, will spend up to months on a single doll. These handmade models obviously fetch a pretty price these days.

Kokeshi dolls have many common features. For example, all have no hands or feet. This is probably as a result of the conditions in which they were first made. It would not have been practical to have made them too intricately and easy to break. Apart from this the formation has been constantly changing over the years with styles gradually taking on the characteristics of the region in which it was produced, to the extent that these days those who have an intimate knowledge of the craft can discern where that doll was made just by looking at it.

In the six prefectures of the Tohoku region, there are a total of twelve types of Kokeshi dolls, all with distinctive features that have contributed to the ‘collection fervor’ that Kokeshi seem to incite today. The most ancient birthplace of Kokeshi is in Togatta, Miyagi Prefecture. Togatta has produced many master class wood artisans, and has played a key role in transferring the Kokeshi making techniques to other spa areas in the Tohoku region. Shinchi in Togatta, Togatta Hot Spring and Aone Hot Spring are the principal producing areas. At present, this is the second most prosperous Kokeshi producing area following Naruko. At Naruko Hot Springs, plain woodwork and lacquer ware have a long history. Simple and tasteful, Naruko Kokeshi have a turning head and emit a cue-cue sound. Yajiro Kokeshi share their origins with Togatta Kokeshi. Today in Yajiro, many people live as half farmer and half artisan, farming the land from early spring to autumn and striving to produce Kokeshi from late autumn to spring when the icy chill moves off the river. Sakunami Kokeshi have a relatively short history as it is generally believed that they were first produced in the early Meiji era. Some Kokeshi come from a background that promotes an urban area such as Sendai, while other Kokeshi dolls in the Tohoku region are inspired by mountain villages, particularly hot spring resorts.

In recent years, some of the more innovative craftsmen have moved away from the traditional image in the creation of a more contemporary design that follows, not only the region, but also has some characteristics of real individuals. This certainly doesn’t surprise me. I have a small collection of dolls and I have often noticed that they seem to reflect my emotion of the moment. When I am happy, I notice a hint of a smile on her small face. When I am down, she seems to frown with me as if telling me that she supports me.

These cleverly crafted dolls have also become a cause for celebration in Tohoku. Every year, in early September, people gather in Naruko Onsen where craftsmen from across the nation gather to honor Kokeshi in a competition where the number one prize is an award from the Prime Minister. Dolls of all sorts, including Kokeshi are celebrated regularly in festivals throughout the year demonstrating the importance of dolls in Japanese ritual. From the simple dolls of poor children, past and present, to the more elaborate models that are becoming more accessible today, dolls play a role in the lives of all Japanese regardless of their economic status.

As I look at my Kokeshi doll by doll, they seem to be piecing together a jigsaw of my life and the relationship I had with their onsen of origin. My latest Kokeshi collection is my Oseibo (Year-end present) from Mr. Nobuhiro Domon of Yamagata, Tohoku. The Kokeshi is called ‘Oshin Kokeshi’, named after the famous NHK drama female character whose life stories have moved TV viewers to tears worldwide and won great popularity for Yamagata prefecture. As a poor, young girl, Oshin received the Kokeshi from her mother who was working in Ginzan Onsen as a ryokan waitress serving sake to customers. Oshin’s mother told her beloved daughter to cherish the Kokeshi as the symbol of her. Oshin kept the Kokeshi all her life, whenever she felt sad, lonely or hopeless, she would turn to the mother Kokeshi for support. The Oshin Kokeshi features black hair and cute big eyes. Thanks to the drama boom, the Oshin Kokeshi is extremely popular in Japan, especially for parents with new-born babies, they will order a special ‘birthday present’ Kokeshi in the hope that their child will grow up to be like the fabulous Oshin, with a strong will, kind heart and never ending fighting spirit.

Current Kokeshi have a gentle and fascinating expression. When I look at my small collection of Kokeshi, I realize that each of them is telling me a story, about herself and about me. Aomori Tsugaru Kokeshi, Miyagi Naruko Kokeshi,  Hanamaki Nanbu Kokeshi, Akita Kijiyama Kokeshi, Yamagata Oshin Kokeshi. Each one reminds me of Tohoku district and the experiences I had there. They all smile at me and invite me to return to their hometown …back to the warm arms of my beloved onsen.