68ed86e645056fa771aa887d82db77aeI 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.

A kokeshi artist hard at work on a larger variety.

A kokeshi artist hard at work on a larger variety.

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.

An antique kokeshi.

An antique kokeshi.

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!



  1. I was so excited about seeing your posting since I just discovered Kokeshi, and two great books on the subject. One entitled, Kokeshi: Wooden Treasures of Japan and Sosaku Kokeshi: A New Look At An Old Tradition. Great images and information about not only the history but the artists.

    • Thanks Gotthold! Are you in Japan? Yeah this is my 5th year here now and I`m always stumbling on new curiosities. There`s a shop on Omotesando street in Tokyo that has a variety of these. Put it on your list when you visit!

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