Kokeshi, tra­di­tional Ja­panese wooden dolls

The Borneo Post - - HOME - By Erda Khursyiah Basir

SENDAI, Ja­pan: As I stepped into Gan­guan Kokeshi Shop, my eyes were im­me­di­ately drawn to the rows and rows of neatly ar­ranged wooden dolls.

The dolls in var­i­ous sizes have dif­fer­ent painted-on ex­pres­sions but have en­larged, round heads and sim­ple, limb­less bod­ies. These Kokeshi dolls were tra­di­tion­ally made for chil­dren. Typ­i­cally it fea­tures the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a cute Ja­panese girl in red and black colour scheme.

I mar­velled at the dainty, de­tailed paint­work on the Kokeshi dolls and won­dered about the fi­nesse needed to pro­duce such in­tri­cate work.

I was about to find out with other par­tic­i­pants of the Ja­pan-East Asia Net­work of Ex­change for Stu­dents and Youths (Je­nesys 2018) as the shop al­lows vis­i­tors to watch the masters at work and try their hand at Kokeshi doll hand paint­ing. The shop is just one of the many at Akiu Craft Park, a fa­cil­ity that houses work­shops for ar­ti­sans pro­duc­ing tra­di­tional Ja­panese crafts.

The store and work­shop owner Akira Suzuki, 58, and wife Hideko Suzuki, 53, greeted and wel­comed us into their shop.

Akira, who hails from Sendai in the Miyagi pre­fec­ture, is a third-gen­er­a­tion Kokeshi doll maker who in­her­ited his skills from his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther.

He told us that Kokeshi dolls, which first made its ap­pear­ance 300 years ago, used to be a chil­dren’s toy.

“While the boys play with tops, the girls would play with Kokeshi dolls in var­i­ous styles, shapes and de­signs. Sendai Kokeshi dolls, for ex­am­ple, are gen­er­ally slen­der-shaped to make it eas­ier for chil­dren to hold them. It also has ‘kind eyes’ and chrysan­the­mums were drawn on the ki­mono,” said Akira, as trans­lated by the pro­gramme co­or­di­na­tor Ka­ji­hara Akiko.

To­day, Kokeshi dolls have be­come a col­lec­tors’item and of­ten given as sou­venirs or gifts.

Kokeshi dolls are said to orig­i­nate from To­hoku, a re­gion in the north east of Hon­shu, Ja­pan’s largest is­land.

Tra­di­tional Kokeshi dolls have dis­tinct char­ac­ter­is­tics in terms of de­sign and colour which re­flect its maker and the re­gion where it was made.

Mod­ern Kokeshi dolls, how­ever, fea­ture vi­brant colours and are less re­stricted in terms of cre­ativ­ity and de­sign.

Akira learned to make the ‘Ena­kichi’ style of Kokeshi from his fa­ther. His doll de­signs have won him the Prime Min­is­ter’s Award in a Ja­pan-wide Kokeshi con­test in 2015, as well as var­i­ous awards in the an­nual Na­tional Kokeshi Con­test.

Although he spe­cialises in mak­ing tra­di­tional Kokeshi dolls, Akira also spends time mak­ing the more mod­ern ‘kawaii Kokeshi’ (cute kokeshi) dolls im­bued with tra­di­tional fea­tures.

Akira in­vited us to sit at des­ig­nated ta­bles in his shop where paint­ing sup­plies has been laid out.

We were de­light­fully sur­prised to be told that we would be paint­ing our own Kokeshi dolls to our own de­sign and lik­ing. Ev­ery par­tic­i­pant chose the smaller-sized un­painted dolls think­ing it would be eas­ier to paint but we would soon learn oth­er­wise.

Akira then drew our at­ten­tion to the white­board, where draw­ing in­struc­tions were ex­plained in six steps. He ex­plained each step as we worked on our dolls.

“First hold your breath! Please draw the eye­brows and lines that in­di­cate the eyes and nose. This is the typ­i­cal hair­style of wooden Kokeshi dolls. It is a pop­u­lar style for Ja­panese girls, es­pe­cially in the olden times.

“An­other char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Kokeshi doll is a very small mouth which is con­sid­ered beau­ti­ful. Many (girls) ap­ply lip­stick only at the cen­tre in­stead of the whole lips and this ap­plies to Kokeshi dolls too,” he ex­plained.

He then in­structed us to draw hair ac­ces­sories and the dress, which is typ­i­cally derived from com­mon ki­mono flower mo­tifs. Pink wass used to paint the blush on the dolls’ cheeks.

We were told not to use each brush on more than one colour to keep the colours clean and vi­brant.

“If you make a mis­take, you can paint the whole face of the Kokeshi doll in black and make it the hair and start over on the other side.Bear in mind, you can only make this mis­take once,” Akira quipped.

We soon re­alised that paint­ing on the small wooden blocks was harder than we imag­ined but this price­less ex­pe­ri­ence gave us an in­sight into the Ja­panese arts, tra­di­tion and cul­ture.

“Af­ter the paint­ing is com­pleted, write down your name at the bot­tom or the back of the doll be­fore it is coated with lac­quer to give it a beau­ti­ful shine,” Akira told us.

Af­ter our dolls were lac­quered, we were pleas­antly sur­prised to be told that we could bring it home with us as a sou­venir. — Ber­nama

Hideko shows some of the col­lec­tions at their shop. — Ber­nama photo

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