28 February 2023
Buyer's Choice: My Memories with Kokeshi Dolls
Lined up neatly on the table are hand crafted wooden dolls known as "kokeshi dolls." With their modest and unique beauty of form, and delicate expressions, they have provided both comfort and joy to their owners for more than 150 years and have become an emblem of Japanese craftsmanship.
As a buyer at MUSUBI KILN, I have the privilege of discovering and selecting authentic traditional tableware and crafts from all corners of Japan. And in my work, there are those happy occasions when I get the opportunity to introduce a personal favorite, and share its backstory and charm with you all. Today, I'd like to share with you my deep fascination and attachment with these beloved kokeshi dolls.
My grandparents live in the countryside of Fukushima Prefecture, a place rich in nature, surrounded by mountains and overlooking the shorelines of the Pacific Ocean.
When I was a child, my brother and I would visit my grandparents every year during winter break. We would sit side by side on an express train for 4 hours, watching the scenery from the window gradually change to a snowy landscape with every tunnel we passed. The long train ride seemed to last forever which always made me a bit anxious. My source of comfort; pieces of candy my usually-bossy older brother gave me.
My grandparents lived in a traditional one-story Japanese-style house with many rooms and a lengthy hallway with wide wooden panels. And in this hallway, stood my grandfather's large collection of Japanese dolls. He had a very unique hobby of collecting various styles of Japanese dolls from lucky cats to carved wooden bears the size of a small dog. The dolls were neatly displayed in the hallway and also on shelves all over the house. I was always amazed at how the number of dolls grew with every visit. Even as a child, I could feel how proud my grandfather was of his extensive collection.
kokeshi dolls from my grandfather's collection
And amongst his extensive collection of Japanese dolls were many different kinds of "kokeshi dolls." Some small and some tall that came up to the height of my shoulder back then.
When my grandparents were busy during the day with their work, these kokeshi dolls were my playmates. I would play house with them, draw pictures next to them. After the sun had set, I would hear my grandmother call out, "It's dinner time!" And before heading to the table, I always selected a small kokeshi doll, carefully held it in my hand and sat down at the table.
In the warm memories with my grandparents, there was always a kokeshi doll by my side. Its cute mouth and smiling little eyes said nothing, yet still was one of my very dear friends as a young child.
An unexpected reunion
Many years had passed since those visits to my grandparents and playing with my grandfather's kokeshi dolls. But my fascination and interest in those adorable wooden dolls were reignited with a photo I saw of Naruko kokeshi dolls on the Internet posted by an apprentice to a master Naruko kokeshi doll craftsman living in Osaki City, Miyagi Prefecture.
I was once again captivated by kokeshi dolls. In her posts were photographs of kokeshi dolls all lined up, staring straight at me, almost like they were beckoning to be held.
I was ecstatic when I finally obtained one of the kokeshi dolls made by Yasuo Okazaki, an awarded traditional craftsman.
kokeshi dolls made by Yasuo Okazaki
A kokeshi doll made by craftsman Okazaki has an extremely smooth wooden texture. And when held closely, one can be comforted by its subtle fresh scent of wood. The painting of the dolls' facial expression and kimono designs are bold yet precise and perfectly balanced.
Every time I look at my kokeshi doll, I'm immediately taken back to my childhood.
Always by my side
Kokeshi dolls have a special place in my heart. Although my kokeshi doll cannot speak or laugh along with me, it remains by my side even in times of struggle and sorrow. It may sound strange, but I look forward to growing old with my kokeshi doll. It has always been and will continue to be by my side. With its painted small eyes, my kokeshi doll stares back with an innocence that soothes my spirit and softens my hardened heart.
Haruka Umehara / Art Director and Buyer
Mother of twins.
Hobbies: Handcrafting, classical ballet
She loves to cook simple and healthy dishes with seasonal vegetables grown nearby her house.