Kokeshi, traditional Japanese wooden dolls
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