I recently took a walk down Tokyo’s Omotesando street and came across an interesting looking antique shop. Rarely passing up the opportunity to feast my eyes on strange and unusual treasures, I headed in and went straight to the top floor when the first seemed rather pedestrian. Wise choice: the second floor was covered in rich tapestries, centuries old kimonos and 18th century wooden chests. What caught my artist’s eye almost immediately though were small, colorful cylindrical dolls neatly lined up as if ready to march into someone’s shopping bag.
These figures are called Kokeshi, or…well, that’s complicated. Any exact meaning of the word has become muddled over time; ko could mean “child”, “small” or “wooden”, with keshi translated as “doll”. This enigma is strangely fitting as the kokeshi intrigue with their mysterious ambiance; sublime smiles and stares frame an enlarged head sitting atop a smoothly shaped body. They do seem to be telling you a story, if you listen close enough. As for there own, it originally emerged out of the many onsen located throughout the Tohoku region during Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868). Indeed, the many originals still bear the name of the spa at which they were first created. A variety of woods, like the deeply rich cherry, mixed with the artisan’s unique creative vision infuse each doll with whimsical personality.
Kokeshi dolls make great holiday gifts for those loved ones still harboring a slumbering child in their hearts. Consider a weekend trip to Gunma prefecture where sosaku (originals) are still crafted, or head to the Oriental Bazaar on Omotesando street if you have the bills to spare. Happy Holidays!