When one mentions the Tohoku region of Japan, those who’ve been abreast of world events will immediately recall the terrible earthquake and tsunami that visited devastation upon the place in 2011. For a time things were terrible there, but the passing of five going on six years after the calamity has given Tohoku time to recover, and is once again serving as one of Japan’s tourist destinations that are just a ways off the more obviously frequented spots. What’s to find in Tohoku, by the way? Well, outside the forests there are the numerous onsen, or traditional Japanese hot spring resorts. And then there are the kokeshi, or traditional wooden dolls.
The tradition of crafting kokeshi in Tohoku dates back to about 200 years ago, back when the area was covered in thick forests, perfect for harvesting lumber by itinerant seasonal woodcutters. In addition to construction materials, wood from the trees, usually the leftovers from sawing into planks, were carved into a variety of useful or fun items and implements ranging from tableware to toys like tops, kendama (ball and cup game) and of course the kokeshi. When winter came and put a halt to logging activity, the woodcutters would retire to the nearby hot springs to relax. While there, they began selling kokeshi to travelers passing through Tohoku, and over the years the customers became tourists both local and international.
Today the kokeshi doll-making business is doing very well for itself, and amazingly their maintained popularity even today is due to the advancement of technology. The standard kokeshi doll is typically a bulbous large head mounted on a rotating swivel atop a thin and smooth body (no arms and legs), with the whole thing painted to depict faces and clothes. Incredibly, their stark designs would inspire Nintendo bigwig Shigeru Miyamoto to conceptualize the Mii, customizable digital avatars of players for navigating and playing certain games in the Wii series of consoles. Between the traditional appeal and the pop culture osmosis, Japanese kokeshi won’t be fading away anytime soon.
Photo courtesy of kyuhoshi.com