Visit a hot spring in Japan’s northern Tōhoku region and you will see kokeshi dolls everywhere. These cylindrical wooden toys appeal to people of all ages and have won increasing favor with foreign visitors too. While their popularity has waxed and waned over the years, kokeshi are now enjoying a renewed surge of interest. A look at the history of kokeshi and the styles produced in various parts of Tōhoku.

Kokeshi Both Traditional and Novel

Kokeshi, produced in many hot spring towns of the Tōhoku region, originated in the latter part of the Edo period (1603–1868) when artisans making wooden bowls and trays on horizontal lathes similar to potter’s wheels began using leftover wood to make children’s toys. Kokeshi were originally quite small, to make them easy for young children to grasp. But as kokeshi began to be sold as souvenirs to visitors taking a hot spring cure, they became quite popular, and onsen towns started producing them in various sizes and shapes and decorating them with distinctive touches.

Jumbo dolls line a street in Naruko Onsen, a kokeshi production center.

Carving a kokeshi at Sakurai Kokeshi Shop. Here, visitors can try their hand at painting a design onto their own kokeshi.

Japan’s first magazine dedicated to kokeshi, published in the early Shōwa (1926–1989) years, lauded the dolls both as a traditional craft and as works of art, and they enjoyed a wave of popularity. A further kokeshi boom ensued during the years of red-hot economic growth in the late 1960s, when people flocked to Tōhoku area onsen and came away with kokeshi as souvenirs.

Nowadays, kokeshi are enjoying another wave of popularity, driven mainly by young women. These women—who call themselves kokeshi joshi—avidly search out not just traditional dolls but also collect new, creative forms of the art. The most popular new variety features kokeshi with a three-dimensional o-kappa, or bob-cut hairstyle, but kokeshi in the form of animals or anime characters are also common.

The Miyagi Zaō Kokeshi Museum in Tōgatta Onsen. Similar facilities exhibiting kokeshi can be found throughout Tōhoku.

Kokeshi designs feature on all sorts of souvenir items.

Easily the most striking version these days is the kokeshi airplane, created in 2015. Described as “weird but cute,” this kokeshi has been officially recognized by the Miyagi Prefectural Tourism Department and has featured several times on posters advertising domestic airlines.

The influx of visitors from abroad has also made kokeshi quite popular outside Japan, particularly in Europe, where growing numbers of people with an appreciation of their simple lines and Japanese motifs collect kokeshi.

An airplane-shaped kokeshi on display at the Miyagi Prefectural Office.

A Dozen Distinctive Styles

In the late Edo period, the onsen of Tōhoku were popular among farmers, who visited in the off season to rest their weary bones. Artisans producing kokeshi learned that there was demand for their wares among these visitors and began coloring their creations, which until then had been plain wood. Red was the predominant color, used in the belief that it had the power to ward off evil and counteract smallpox and other maladies prevalent at the time. Reenergized by the healing onsen waters, farmers took these traditional kokeshi back to their villages as talismans and as lucky charms to ensure a bountiful harvest. Kokeshi given to children as toys carried with them the hope that the children would grow up strong and healthy.

There are various theories as to the origin of the word kokeshi, which were also called kogesu, kiboko or deko, depending on their place of origin. At a 1940 gathering of artisans and collectors, participants agreed to standardize on the name kokeshi, which is what the dolls have been called since then.

Seen from the front, Naruko Onsen kokeshi display a line of chrysanthemums, while their heads are crowned with lozenge-shaped chrysanthemum crests. (Photo courtesy of the Miyagi Prefectural Tourism Department)

Kokeshi are made all over Tōhoku, but the three main production centers are Naruko and Tōgatta, in Miyagi Prefecture, and Tsuchiyu in Fukushima Prefecture. Kokeshi are grouped into 10 to 12 varieties, each with distinctive features—shape, decoration, or production technique—handed down in each region.

1. Tsugaru Style (Aomori)

This style of kokeshi has a loosely attached head that makes a knocking sound when the doll is moved. The wood on these kokeshi was originally left plain to heighten appreciation of the grain, but painted designs were adopted later, influenced by the Naruko and Tōgatta styles. Produced mainly in the cities of Hanamaki and Morioka in Iwate Prefecture.

2. Nanbu Style (Iwate)

This style of kokeshi has a loosely attached head that makes a knocking sound when the doll is moved. The wood on these kokeshi was originally left plain to heighten appreciation of the grain, but painted designs were adopted…

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