Japanese Handicrafts – Kokeshi

In my travels around Japan photographing artisans and craftsmen for my upcoming book, I met Abo-san, a Kokeshi craftsman. His workshop and art was absolutely splendid however we weren’t able to include him in the book for space reasons, so I am going to introduce him here.

Kokeshi are a type of decorative wooden doll that is popular in the northern regions of Japan. They served as toys for children hundreds of years ago and now are valued as folk craft items that bring good luck. Although the prefecture of Miyagi is famed for having the highest quality kokeshi, Abo-san is from Aomori, and his dolls have been praised as some of the best in Japan.

Watching him work it is very clear that Abo-san is a true master, as he transforms a featureless block of wood into a smooth and shiny kokeshi figure within minutes using a variety of well-worn chisels. The ground is littered with wooden shavings around his feet, which controls the spinning wheel.

Painting the doll looks deceptively simple – Abo-san touches his paintbrush to the spinning wooden figure and a perfect ring of paint appears. It’s clear that an extremely steady hand is required however.

When it comes to painting the fine details such as the face, Abo-san says he must do it on a different day to chiseling, as his hands get numbed from the force required to carved the rapidly spinning wood.

Thanks for reading this far! Hope you enjoyed this brief glimpse into Abo-san’s workshop and the world of kokeshi.