Yukinori Jinnohara's kokeshi workshop is perched next to a staircase leading to a shrine at Tsuchiyu Hot Spring, deep in the mountains of Fukushima. His presence at the lathe conveys absolute mastery. He is completely relaxed, never doubting his next move. To him, the continuity of the kokeshi doll tradition is a symbol of his community, its identity and its rich past.
The body art on the doll is painted at the spinning lathe, so lines circle the doll’s torso in staccato rhythm. But in the Tsuchiyu style, the craftsman reverses the lathe direction, subtly breaking the rhythm. Jinnohara smiles as he hands you a warm, freshly lathed wooden doll.
You might be thinking kokeshi dolls resemble Russian nested Matryoshka dolls. There are varieties of nesting kokeshi, and, in fact, kokeshi predate Matryoshka dolls by 200 years.
It’s even said Sergey Malyutin, the Russian painter who designed the original set of Matryoshka dolls in 1890, drew his inspiration from a set of Japanese nesting dolls he saw at the estate of a famous Russian industrialist.
Jinnohara is the bearer of this lovely, longstanding traditional craft. But he has also seen his dolls used in quite contemporary ways.
These days, kokeshi are given as keepsakes to longtime foreign residents of Japan returning to their home countries. First, the body of the doll is made into a paper scroll, on which people will write farewell and thank-you messages. Kokeshi are also frequently made as commemorative items, with special designs that suit the occasion being celebrated. A wedding couple might have their kokeshi likenesses made, or a football team might have a kokeshi mascot made up.
Yukinori Jinnohara continues to make his own unique kokeshi, looking both to the past and to the future.
The dolls are standing at attention facing forward in rows ten deep. Their feminine faces are stylised with almost Mona Lisa expressions. Their bodies are single stick figures, with brightly coloured lines and abstract decorative arabesques in soft green and red. The forms are quite abstract. These are the dolls of Tsuchiyu Kokeshi.
The soft cherry, elm and walnut wood, and the handmade lathe curves and hand-painted facial expressions, give the dolls an individuality that defies the strict rules of their traditional craftsmanship.
The workshop of Tsuchiyu Kokeshi sits deep in the mountains of Fukushima, near a hot spring. Each hot spring town in the Tohoku region has its own doll style, a Galapagos of subtle stylistic evolution that stretches across several of Japan's prefectures. Each style has become unique, interbreeding impossible.
These Tsuchiyu hot spring dolls are different in subtle ways from neighbouring styles. In the shape of the mouth, the pout of the lower lip, and the way the head is attached.
The making of these dolls follows a prescribed tradition, but close examination reveals subtle differences in facial expression, form and mood. Each one is a subtle masterpiece.
[re:new tohoku] Tsuchiyu Kokeshi
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Great products from areas in Japan that were hit hard by the 2011 disaster were featured at Asia House in London in July, 2012. We are eager to identify buyers, designers and other partners who can help us make these products successful in markets outside Japan.