While the words “Japanese doll” may conjure up the image of an elegant figurine with a china head and brocade kimono, a far more popular — and affordable — kind of Japanese doll is the kokeshi.
Kokeshi are wooden dolls with cylindrical bodies and simple faces. They usually have no arms or legs, and are often decorated with a design painted on their bodies. The word kokeshi is written in hiragana, not kanji, and its origin is unknown, but it may derive from some combination of Japanese words for wood (ki) and small (ko).
Kokeshi are craft items associated with the northern region of Japan’s main island, known as Tōhoku. This area has heavy snowfalls in winter, and it is said that farmers there spend the long winter nights carving kokeshi. Tōhoku is also famous for its’ onsen or hot springs, and kokeshi dolls are popular onsen souvenirs. As the examples here show, the dolls can vary according to the shape of their body or the size of their head, and some regions of Tōhoku are associated with a particular style of kokeshi doll.
Kokeshi reportedly date from the Tokugawa or Edo period (1600 to 1868). However, since WW2 a variation known as creative kokeshi have begun to appear. These dolls have more sophisticated features and costumes, as suggested by this kokeshi hashioki with her apple red cheeks and dandelion painted on her body. Creative kokeshi sometimes have bobble heads, and sometimes come in pairs, including bride and groom pairs that sometimes serve as wedding cake toppers.