Monday, March 15, 2010

Kawatsura kokeshi dolls

As I wrote in the previous post, on 13th February, hubby and I went to see Inukko Matsuri in Yuzawa city of Akita prefecture. Near the festival site, exhibition of Kawatsura lacquerware and kokeshi dolls (Kawatsura shikki sogou tenjikai) was held. The exhibition was organized by Akita Lacquerware Industry Cooperative Association (Akita-ken shikki kougyou kyodou kumiai) and was held at Kawatsura lacquerware traditional crafts museum hall building (Yuzawa-shi Kawatsura shikki dentou kougeikan). While waiting to enjoy the night-time snow festival, we went to see the exhibition of Kawatsura kokeshi dolls at about 5.30 pm.


Display of Kawatsura kokeshi dolls at the exhibition


Kokeshi dolls are originally from Tohoku region of Japan. The dolls are handmade from wood and have a simple cylindrical trunk and an enlarged rounded head. A few thin, painted lines define the face, and the body has a floral design painted in red, black, and sometimes yellow. The dolls are covered with a layer of wax. Kokeshi dolls lack arms and legs. The bottom or the backside of dolls is marked with the signature of the artist. Although kokeshi dolls are simple and minimalist dolls, they are difficult to make well as proportion and style must be just right. These dolls were first produced by kijishi (wood artisans) at Shinchi Shuraku near Togatta onsen in Miyagi prefecture in the middle of Edo period to be sold to people visiting the hot springs. Kokeshi making techniques gradually spread to other spa areas in the Tohoku region. The shapes and patterns of traditional kokeshi dolls called dentou-kokeshi are particular to a certain area and are classified under eleven types, namely Tsuchiyu, Togatta, Yajiro, Naruko, Sakunami, Yamagata, Kijiyama, Nanbu, Tsugaru, Zao-takayu, and Hijioro. The most dominant type is the Naruko variety originally made in Miyagi prefecture and can also be found in Akita, Iwate, and Yamagata prefectures. There is another variety of kokeshi dolls known as creative kokeshi (shingata-kokeshi) that allows the artist freedom in terms of shape, design, and color. Creative kokeshi dolls were developed after World War II and are not particular to a specific region of Japan. Nowadays kokeshi dolls are widely popular as collector's items and souvenirs.

Kawatsura kokeshi dolls are traditional products of Inagawamachi, a town known to have the most kokeshi doll artisans in Akita prefecture. The wooden kokeshi dolls were first produced by Kijiya wood craftsmen as a sideline and this type of traditional dolls are known as Kijiyama. Some of these Kijiya craftsmen lived far in the mountains (yama), which was the source for their wood. Thus, the name Kijiyama is translated as ‘woodcraft mountain’. The actual location of Kijiyama is very remote and was inaccessible during the winter months. Therefore many of the kokeshi makers left and settled in the less remote area of Kawatsura, which is now a part of Inagawamachi. This was the origin of Kawatsura lacquerware craftsmen and Kawatsura kokeshi dolls. However, these dolls are still known by their original traditional name of Kijiyama. The first Kijiyama kokeshi dolls were made near the end of Meiji period, and were modeled on Naruko variety. Kijiyama kokeshi are simple, attractive, warm and friendly, and have gentle features.

Kawatsura Kijiyama kokeshi dolls are simple one-piece dolls that are carved from a single piece of wood. The art, technique, and skills of making these kokeshi dolls are passed on from fathers to sons and from masters to apprentices. There are ten steps involved in the making of these dolls, which are as follows.
1. Bassai: Cutting Itayakaede Japanese maple tree.
2. Genboku kansou: Drying the wood by laying it out at a place without direct sunlight for one year.
3. Nakamogi: Cutting timber wood into log form of about one meter length.
4. Kawakezuri: Removing bark from the log by using an axe or hatchet. This prevents damage by insect and also helps in drying the log.
5. Nakawari: Splitting the log into four equal parts.
6. Tamakiri: Cutting the log into the desired length of kokeshi.
7. Kidori: Making hexagonal or octagonal shapes of logs. During this process, sorting and selection of material is done.
8. Rokurohiki: Cutting and shaping the log in details using a lathe machine, and polishing the surface to a fine finish.
9. Byousai: Painting head, face, and body of kokeshi.
10. Kansei: Completion by painting entire kokeshi with wax for attaining a glossy surface.
Various steps involved in the making of Kawatsura Kijiyama kokeshi dolls (please click on the photo for an enlarged view)


Kawatsura Kijiyama kokeshi one-piece dolls have unique heads and bright painted designs on their aprons. The heads tend to be slightly elongated and the bodies are columnar, tapered at the shoulders to a definite neck. The heads are about the same width as the body. Some Kijiyama have bobbed hair styles while others have side tufts and bangs, with a red bow tied at the top. The eyes of these dolls may be half-moon shaped or narrower, and have small cat noses (neko-bana). Lips are a small black line with a red dot below. Kijiyama dolls are painted in the most realistic style of all the traditional kokeshi. The body of most of these dolls have painted kimono in red and black with light touches of green. The first kimono-style Kijiyama was painted by a craftsman in the early Showa period, which set the distinctive style for this family of dolls. Generally there are three styles of kimono painted on Kijiyama dolls. The striped kimono is painted with a matching striped obi. Another popular kimono style has a maedare (apron) design outlined in front and painted with igata kasuri pattern. Umebachi or bowl-shaped plum blossoms are painted on the front of the third kimono style, with stripes painted down the top and shoulders. Yet other styles of kimono are painted with flower motifs such as stylized chrysanthemums, which is somewhat like Naruko kokeshi. Depending on the face, hairstyles, and kimono patterns, Kawatsura Kijiyama kokeshi dolls are classified into five subcategories, namely Taiichiro gata, Yonekichi gata, Hyoujirou gata, Ishikura gata, and Tokuichi gata. The details are shown in the photo below. All these types of Kawatsura kokeshi dolls were on display at the exhibition. These dolls are very beautiful and attractive because of their simplicity and colorful drawing patterns. Every doll at the exhibition seemed to emanate its own individual spirit. Innovative ‘Komachi musume’ dolls of Ogachimachi Komachi festival were also on display.
Various kinds of eyes, noses, lips, hairstyles, and kimono patterns of Kawatsura Kijiyama kokeshi dolls (please click on the photo for an enlarged view)



Kijiyama dolls having typical features of half moon eyes, simple lips, and bobbed hair or side tufts. Various patterns of kimono designs are also seen.

Komachi musume dolls


After appreciating the display of various beautiful Kawatsura Kijiyama kokeshi dolls at the exhibition, I wished to buy a few dolls as souvenir. Hubby found a very unique pair of male and female kokeshi dolls that looked very cute, elegant, and perfect. Seeing the dolls gave me a sense of immense happiness and I just knew that those dolls were meant for me! The entire set consisted of a base, a pair of male and female dolls, and two lamp stands called bonbori. The set is made by a famous kokeshi craftsman named Kenichi Kitayama who is from Hiragacho in Yuzawa city of Akita prefecture. He is a professional maker of Kawatsura Kijiyama dolls of the type Yonekichi gata. It was a great experience to meet Mr. Kitayama who was standing at the exhibition hall besides the dolls he crafted. He explained that although traditional original kokeshi were only female dolls but nowadays male dolls are also crafted, especially when making a pair of dolls. This set of dolls is really unique with the signature of the artist at the backside of the base, and not the usual place which is the back of dolls. The wooden dolls have a very dignified, well defined, and appealing look. The female doll has black dots painted above her eyes in accordance with the beauty standards of Heian period. The male doll has a carved topknot hairstyle. These dolls were the only ones with distinctive patterns and unique kimono style in the entire exhibition. A lot of bright colors are used for painting the kimonos. The patterns of the kimono of female doll are brightly colored in black, orange, and green. The kimono of male doll has patterns colored in black, green, orange, yellow, and white. The patterns, motifs, and various bright colors used to decorate kimono of this pair of dolls is not the usual style of Kijiyama dolls. This set of dolls is simple, wonderful, and now decorates the curio shelf of our home. We have even preserved the wrapping papers which have various hairstyles and facial features of Kawatsura kokeshi dolls printed on them.
Wrapping paper showing hairstyles and facial features of Kawatsura kokeshi dolls

Set consisting of a base, a pair of Kawatsura kokeshi dolls, and lamp stands we purchased

Facial features, hairstyles, and a portion of kimono patterns of the pair of male and female Kawatsura kokeshi dolls

Signature of the craftsman Kenichi Kitayama at the backside of the base of the doll set


After paying for the kokeshi dolls at the checkout counter, I was given six coupons reflecting the purchase amount, which was 6000 Yen. Then we went to a nearby booth having chuusen lottery box, which is a hexagonal box suspended on an axle between two supports. We grab a crank and spin the contraption like a bingo machine. The box is full of small colored balls that whirl and move inside, and a ball is spit out from a little hole onto a tray. We may win a prize depending on the color of the ball. The number of times we can spin the box depends on the amount of our purchase. At this booth, we could spin the chuusen box once for purchase of goods worth 1000 Yen. So I got to spin the box six times. One red, one yellow, and four white balls came out of the box. I was very happy to get one second (red ball) and one third prize (yellow ball), which must be very rare as the person at the booth was rather surprised that I won two prizes. He added up second and third prizes and told me to pick up a wooden doll from a stock of about 10 pieces. I was a bit confused about choosing the doll as all dolls were so cute and beautiful. Hubby helped me in selecting an elegant Kawatsura kokeshi doll crafted by Ichijirou Sakurada who is from Nishimonai in Ugo town of Akita prefecture. This Kijiyama doll is rather unique as the kimono pattern has a painting of a pretty dancing belle of Nishimonai bon festival. The cost of this doll was 17000 Yen but I got it free!
Elegant Kawatsura kokeshi doll I got as a chuusen lottery prize

Signature of the craftsman Ichijirou Sakurada at the back of the doll


I love Kawatsura kokeshi dolls. My love of wooden dolls started more than 3.5 decades ago when as a little girl I was thrilled to get an Indian one-piece wooden doll as a present from my parents. I still have this doll at my brother’s home in India. The face of the doll is painted in an Indian style and a pitcher of water is carved on the top of head. The waist of the doll is distinct and two hands were attached to the side of the body with nails. Unfortunately, the hands are lost now. My brother sent me a photo of the doll a few days ago. Thanks Dada. I felt nostalgic seeing the photo of my precious childhood wooden doll.

One-piece Indian wooden doll

6 comments:

Sharu said...

Beautiful post.....I like your way of detailing. ( the rate of movement of the sushi conveyor belt is a classic example in case !!)
As an Indian living in Japan I can relate a lot to your posts( except that my husband is Indian too :)!! )
I always marvel at the similarity of cultures between India and Japan - like the doll at the end of your post !! Maybe this similarity lets us weave our lives seamlessly with into the fabric of this country and makes us feel at home. I too love Japan and its culture/food. It is a classic example of blending modern technology with a simple but strong cultural base. Keep writing !!

Manisha Kundu-Nagata said...

Thanks Sharu for your comment. Somehow I missed seeing the comment until today..

Yeah, living as a foreigner in Japan has its own difficulties, but after all these years I feel comfortable and am in love with Japan :)

And there are many similarities of culture between India and Japan.It is probably because of the effect of Buddhism, although I am not sure about it.

I know my posts sometime get too technical.... Too many years of being in the field of Physics research, I guess....Sorry, if the posts gets a bit boring sometimes...Do visit often and keep your comments...Bye..

Anindya said...

Hello Manisha San,

Thanks for sharing all your photos and experiences with us. I'm glad that I could see so much of the culturally rich nation through your eye.

Absolutely fantastic pictures and also beautiful write-up. You realy have a flair for writing.

Manisha Kundu-Nagata said...

Thanks for your comment Anindya. I am glad that you liked this post. I have now started collecting various kinds of kokeshi dolls.

Citra said...

Hi Manisha,

My name is Citra, from Malaysia. I saw your web page , really attractive. Me also love to collect dolls. I want to buy a pair of traditional Kokeshi doll. But how and where to get? Could you help me to buy it.MY email id is ppcitra@gmail.com . Waiting for your reply.

Manisha Kundu-Nagata said...

Thanks Citra for your comment. Great to know that you like kokeshi dolls. There are many online websites selling traditional Japanese dolls from where you can buy. Best wishes.