Northern Japan Traditional Kokeshi Dolls, page 3

(Northern Japan Traditional Kokeshi) 

Variations on a Theme

Article by Shirlee Funk
Ningyo Journal, Early Winter 2003

Copyright J.A.D.E. (Japanese Asian Doll Enthusiasts)

...continued from page 2

Hijiori-kei & Shûsuke style

Produced at Hijiori Qnsen, and Sendai-shi

The strain of kokeshi produced by the fewest craftsmen, the Hijiori-kei may be the most vivid. Plainly influenced by Narugo style, with a straight, columnar body and shoulders, this strain also has some characteristics of the Tôgatta style, particularly the blocky, large heads, and the petal-like red lines painted back from the sides of the face.

Hijiori were first developed by Shûsuke Safa, who moved from Tôgatta to the Hijiori spa, which is surrounded by the enduring presence of the "Dewa Sanzan" (three mountains in the Dewa area.)

Heads of the Hijiori kokeshi are large on their slender bodies, so they could be called zudai kokeshi: big-headed kokeshi. Heads are stub-jointed to the body. These blocky heads have sophisticated faces, with full, curved red lips. Some have a naga-bana nose, and noticeably arched double-lidded eyes under arched brows.

The Shûsuke style are especially distinctive, with full, open, curved lips. On this style, the corners of the double-lidded eyes are not connected, adding an exotic look. Their noses are more delicate and detailed as well, with nostril curves.

The thick hair is painted as a full curve around the face on the Shûsuke style, even though it stops beyond that. The top of the head is painted with a thick, red double bow, the loops filled in with green. On others, the hair has three sections, separated by tegara-style red radial lines, which also cover part of the top of the head.

The bodies are colorful, since they are first painted yellow before flower patterns are added in bright red and green. On the Shûsuke style, the stylized chrysanthemums are divided by an obi in purple and red. These chrysanthemums also are painted all around the body. On others, flowers such as a cluster of fringed pinks (carnations) are painted only on the front. Or, like their Tôgatta grandmothers, a dense stack of kasanegiku are painted down the front.

Relatively few Hijiori are made. Because they are so distinctive and attractive, they can be more expensive.

Focus on details: Hijiori

A flat paper version of the design used on the head, and one style of flowers for the body.

Blocky head, curveded lips, a style of double lid eye with open corners & flared nostrils.

Left: Side of head where the hairline stops, edged in red streaks.

All close-ups show 
Shûsuke style.


Left: Top of head: double looped red bow, green inside the loops.


Right: Back view - Mums painted all the way around.

Ejiko kokeshi

In the days when all the hands in the family were needed in the farm fields at certain times of the year, a family kept their infant safe by wrapping him in quilts and setting the bundled baby in an izumeko basket at the edge of the field. These baskets, once used to store cooked rice in the Yamagata region, held the baby safely. This inspired a folk toy showing the basket bundle with a doll figure in it. Considered fertility charms for numerous descendants, and happy family life, these figures were called ejiko as well as izumeko.

Kokeshi craftsman have been creating such figures out of lathe-turned wood. The wide base of these figures mimics the basket, topped by a head that is painted like the craftsman's other kokeshi. Characteristic motifs decorate the "basket" part. This is the ejiko kokeshi. Some craftsman cut the top to make a lid and hollow the base for a small container which could also be called obunko-kokeshi. A more recent variation has been made with head and shoulders that rotate in the body, made much like a ball-and-socket joint.

Not all strains of dento kokeshi have been made as ejiko, but many have. Currently one can find ejiko in the style of Narugo, Tôgatta, Yajirô, Zaô, and Tsuchiyu strains along with some of the Nakanosawa sub-strain. Some are turned on the lathe with special details, such as a "chatter" technique used on some Narugo ejiko, which creates a slightly corrugated surface.

Narugo ejiko that is also an obunko kokeshi. The head is the knob of a lid to lift off the hollowed body. Note the "chatter' technique, used to create surface texture.

Nakanosawa style ejiko, also a container. The painting reflects older Nakanosawa kokeshi. 
Charles Mayer collection.


Produced at Yajira village

Sold at Kamasaki Onsen and other places

Those seeking very colorful dento kokeshi should look at the rainbow-colored Yajiro kokeshi, whose artists not only use red, green, black, and yellow, but also purple and blue. Much of the color is used to paint circular bands on the bodies, but chrysanthemum petals are also painted in a variety of colors, sometimes with only half the flower showing.

Of all strains of kokeshi, Yajirô may also show the widest range in body shapes. Though many are columnar in shape, most tend to be broader at the base. Some have narrow shoulders or narrow waists. Others may have a swollen upper body combined with one of the other variations.

The heads are either ball shaped or blocky, attached to the body with a squeezed-in joint called sashikomi. Several colors may be used on the heads to paint circular beret patterns on top of the heads. Some have a broad black bun on top. Like nearly all Yajirô, this has a red center spot. A very few have suge-gasa --conical hats on top their heads.

Most Yajirô have a single-lid eye and a neko-bana nose, though a bachi-bana (drumstick) style or a tancho-bana (simple) nose has also been used. Some have red petal streaks painted behind the tufts of hair to the sides of the face, not unlike the Togatta style. A few have painted ears instead.

Though most bodies are decorated with lathe-painted circular bands, some have a plum branch on the front, or semicircles of chrysanthemum petals. Some have the painted collar of a kimono, along with the lower opening of the kimono at the bottom. Some even have vertical stripes for a kimono skirt painted on the lower part.

Yajirô-machi was once only a farming village, between two tall mountains. The kiji-shi divided their time between farming and wood-craft. Those who made kokeshi in their spare time sent their wives to the nearby Kamasaki Onsen to sell their work to tourist shops. It was well past the middle of the 20th century before craftsmen could afford to make kokeshi as a full-time occupation there.

Yajirô kokeshi have been made from cherry wood, camellia and maple, but the preferred wood is white dogwood, mizuki. The craftsmen have long harvested their own wood, cutting mizuki from the end of autumn through the winter. After the bark has been stripped, the logs are stored in an upside-down position to dry, to prevent sprouting, which persists even in such harsh conditions. Many feel that the indomitable spirit of the trees creates an invincible spirit in these kokeshi.

Focus on details: Yajirô

Nearly all Yajirô have a painted beret (left) or a bun on top. The one on the right is painted like the momoware (split peach) style once used by teenage girls. The face style on the left is one of the most distinctive and delicate. Most Yajirô have hitoe-mabuta (single-lid eyes) The eye shape on the right head is the most common. Note cheek spots on two of these.

Top of heads: second from left shows the momoware bun on the top. All others are varieties of rokuro painting pattems used on top the heads. Center spots are red, though the berets may be black or purple. Many have a hair fringe over the face.

Body shapes have a wide variety. Many bodies are painted with rokuro bands, but unlike Tsuchiyu, Yajirô are usually plain bands of even widths, in several colors, like the one on the left, which is red, purple and yellow. Others have exaggerated kiku petals, like the two in the middle. A nice variation is flower abstraction on the right.


Produced at Sakunami Onsen and Sendai-shi

More than any other strain of dento kokeshi, Sakunami were considered companions for children. Originally, they were small and very slender, meant to be held by srnall hands when these children were strapped to their mothers' backs. With disproportionately large heads, these kokeshi were obviously not meant to stand, but to be held.

Over time, this unstable form changed. Broader bases were added to some, and the bodies also became thicker. Some still look top-heavy, tapered to narrow "ankles" just above a wider flair, or a platform base.

Begun in the early Meiji period, this style developed, not at a spa, but in the town of Sendai. Later, craftsmen began producing this strain at the Sakunami Onsen, right on the border between Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures. Thus, a branch began to be produced in Yamagata, too. The Yamagata strain is considered separately in this article, though many class it together with the Sakunami strain as one family.

Most Sakunami are painted only in red and green with black. Lathe-painted lines usually ring the top and bottom of the body, with stylized floral patterns in between. On the tapered-body versions, much of the red painting has been done with a wide, soft brush, so the design less detailed.

This is true for the decorations on the heads, too, where a characteristic black ponytail streaks across the top of the head-- with a sort of wide red bow spread above the divided bangs. The Togatta-style red streaks curving away from the forehead and down behind the ears are so wide on those heads with tapered bodies, that the streaks blend together. These heads that are broader at the top, slightly tapered toward the bottom. The eyes are usually single-lidded and the noses are ware-bana (split) style.

Other Sakunami have big, blocky heads with broad tufts of black hair at the sides. The eyes for this style have a single curved upper lid, and noses that may be a tear-drop shaped. Those in this big-headed group also have straight column bodies, which are painted on the top and bottom with bands of red and black. On these, the decorated mid-section is so abstracted that it's hard to say it's floral.

The Sakunami group shows one of the very distinctive features of these kokeshi: the use of mizuki,a white dogwood grown just over the border in Yamagata. There, the harsh, cold winds that blow off the sea slow the growth of the trees so that the fibers are very dense. This wood is prized for the fine grain and its very pale color. The craftsman who make these Sakunami kokeshi use only this locally grown wood. Enhancing its unique beauty has become a hallmark of their work.

Focus on details: Sakunami 

Variety of split nose 


Abstract design on body.

Top of heads: black ponytail streak.

Side view showing wide brush strokes on the left one.

Platform base with rokuro lines


Produced at Yamagata-shi, Yonezawa-shi, and elsewhere

Two Kobayashi family craftsman who originally trained to make Sakunami kokeshi moved to Yamagata City nearby, taking their craft with them. But they created kokeshi with enough differences that some have called their style a different strain, the Yamagata-kei.

Yamagata have columnar bodies with large blocky heads. Most have lathe-painted bands at the top and bottom. In between the bands, the main part of the bodies are decorated with fully opened plum flowers. For the flower motif, only red and dark green are used. Sometimes the plum blossoms are several in a stack, sometimes in a profusion of smaller flowers painted on the front, sometimes the plum flowers are stylized. Rarely, the flowers are cherry, but a few are painted with a totally different motif, a crab-like chrysanthemum design, called kanibana (crab flower.)

The heads are broader on top, and taper in to the neck. Some are even flat on top. They are jointed with a gooseneck to the body. Painted somewhat like Sakunami, the heads have a narrow black ponytail across the top. In some cases, it is not banded by a loose red bow, but by sort of red coronet with wide curving ends. A few of those with kanibana designs on the body have a red beret on top their heads.

In rare cases, Yamagata kokeshi have wood hats shaped like suge-gasa, the conical sedge hats. These hats are painted similarly to the body.

Focus on details: Yamagata

Suge-gasa hat. - CM.

Tear-drop nose

Kanibana (crabflower) chrysanthemum.

Top coronet, left. Crablike design in red, right.

Patchy discoloration on the right hair tuft is caused by flaking wax on the surface.

Back of head with hair tuft & red streaks.

Body decorated with profusion of open plum flowers.


Zaô-kei & Atsumi style or Zaô-Takayu strain

Produced at Zaô Onsen, Yamagata-shi, Yonezawa-shi, and Atsumi-machi

Zaô was a prosperous resort at the end of the 19th century, with four souvenir shops. But no one was producing kokeshi there for visitors to buy. A tofu seller went to Aone, where a branch of Togatta kokeshi were made, and begged a craftsman there to send some of his men to Zaô. Two responded to this appeal, and production of a Zaô style began in 1890. Other kokeshi craftsmen from other areas came before long, working for the various souvenir shops. Craftsmen for the four shops began competing with each other, and thus helped to develop a distinctive Zaô style quickly. It was based in part on the work of Akiyama Keichiro, though the influence of Togatta style is evident, with hints of Tsuchiyu influence and Yamagata influence.

Generally, Zaô kokeshi have a thick body, tapered to the neck, with a stub-jointed round head. Some have a slightly curvy body with a base similar to Yamagata, painted with rings. Most often, the bodies are lavishly decorated with stylized cherry blossoms or kasanegiku in dense layers. On some, the style of flowers looks wind-blown. A yellow tinted body is sometimes used as a base for the paint. On top their heads, Zaô have a red crab-like tegara pattern. Sometimes the side tufts of hair are curved toward the cheeks. The noses are split, round, or long. Some noses are tear-drop shaped.

Within the Zaô strain, the Atsumi style developed at Atsumi Onsen, on the sea coast in Yamagata. Here, elements of Tsuchiyu and Yamagata styles were incorporated by Abe Tsunematsu, who lived first in Tsuchiyu, then trained in Aone, finally settling in Atsumi. The Atsumi hairstyle is like Yamagata, the nose is like Tsuchiyu. Atsumi tend to have broader shoulders, and most are decorated with a shoulder band that includes a red scalloped line, edged by straight lines. The eyes are wide open and wide-set. They have naga-bana noses and tiny mouths.

The Atsumi dolls are more distinctive than other Zaô, whose characteristics make them hard to distinguish from certain other strains. Zaô are among the least common styles, so it's worthwhile to look for those that are identified as Zaô. They make a varied group.

Focus on details: Zaô

Big, wide-set eyes, nagabana (long nose) on Atsumi style.

Typical Zaô face. Other varieties of noses include a teardrop shape.

Top of head patterns. Atsumi style on right.

One style of flower motif. Others include similar flowers painted with wide brush, or in kasanegiku style. Also maple leaves are used. 

View of side hair tufts.

Rear view; showing typical curved body, left. Right is blocky body of Atsumi. This one is turned from maple and is heavy. The wood grain shows more than most kokeshi.

Atsumi body with usual scalloped band at top, & airy branch of flowers

Daruma faces are common on Tsugaru-kei. Four of these are Tsugaru. But on the left is a Yajirô with a hime (princess) daruma, and third from the right is a Kijiyama, with a daruma maedare. These two are rare. Charles Mayer collection.

Sunlight is flattering, but don't leave them there!

Tsugaru-kei & Owoni style or Tsugaru-Nuruyu strain

Produced at Kuroishi-nuruyu Onsen, Owani-machi, and Hirosaki-shi

The youngest of all the strains of dento kokeshi, Tsugaru-kei developed after adults took an interest in buying more kokeshi as souvenirs of their trips to the hot-spring resorts. The style originated at the Nuruyu ("lukewarm") Resort, of Kuroishi City, Aomon-ken, so they are sometimes called "Nuruyu strain." Tsugaru was the feudal name for this area. Before Meiji reforms, the craftsmen of this region were controlied by the ruling feudal lord. In the Taisho period, Hidetaro Mori began production of this kokeshi style, using the peony motif, taken from the crest of the Tsugaru daimyô, to decorate his figures.

Since these were targeted at early kokeshi collectors, there is a somewhat broader range of style, with more variation in body shapes. Some are "wasp-waisted" with full upper bodies, some are more columnar, some are flared above, but taper slightly below. All are unjointed, turned from one piece of wood, except for those of a style variation from the Owani Onsen. Most have circular painting on the upper and lower body, but these rings may be interspersed with curvilinear designs which are attributed to Ainu motifs.

Vividly painted in bright colors of red, black, yellow, green and purple, the bodies include graphic designs of Daruma-san, and realistic painted flowers, mostly iris, peony, or camellia. A few designs are said to be taken from the floats of the Nebuta summer festival of Aomori Prefecture. [see Ningyo Journal 8:3, p. 8] The Nebuta-style Daruma face is popular.

The heads are round, some with a "bun" on top. They have a bobbed hairstyle with bangs, and often a round spot on top the head. Though the hair is solidly black, the individual brush strokes are evident at the edges. The facial features are not very standard. The noses can be a black dot, a cat-nose, a round nose, or a drumstick nose. Most eyes are a variety of two-lidded styles, but a very distinct style, that seems to have no specific name has been used by just a couple of artists. I call this the "streak-eye" style, which could be called suji-me.

A derivative of the Tsugaru-kei is the Owani style. These kokeshi are shaped more like Narugo-kei, but have realistic flowers, in singles or a cluster, on the body. The head and hairstyle are like other Tsugaru, but the eyes are slightly wider, or are solid black, called tsubushi-me

Focus on details: Tsugaru

Buns on top. Charles Mayer collection.

Distinctive "streak eye" style. - CM

Top of heads. Owani style left.
Facial features are more varied. Here are a couple of styfes for 
eye, nose & mouth. Left is bachi-bana (drumstick nose.)

"Ainu" motifs used at top and bottom of body designs. -CM

Body shapes may have deep curves. This one could be called "wasp waist. "

Owani style

Peony motif -CM


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