3 Things You Need to Know about Maebashi Kokeshi Dolls

OKAIMONO/ Kokeshi Dolls, Lifestyle


3 Things You Need to Know about Maebashi Kokeshi Dolls 2

Kokeshi (こけし, 小芥子), are wooden Japanese dolls that have been crafted for more than 150 years as a toy for children. There are many stories of how the naming came upon, however, the origin remains unclear. A popular explanation suggests that “Ko” is derived from wood in Japanese (“Ki” or “Ko”) and “Keshi” referring to dolls (芥子 “Keshi”) or a combination of Japanese Kanji characters that meant wood carving (木削子 “Kogeshi”).


Gunma prefecture, where Maebashi City is located, is home to many splendid hot-spring (onsen) villages and beautiful mountains in Japan. Kokeshi dolls have long been famous as souvenirs sold at hot-springs where people would visit to heal their bodies and there was also a lot of high-quality wood in the area. Getting Kokeshi dolls as a souvenir meant bringing a part of nature home, and is also a popular choice to pass on good wishes when gifting. It is said that Kokeshi dolls originated in the late Edo Period (beginning of the 19th century) as dolls that children would play with. 

Usually, the wooden Kokeshi dolls have an iconic round head and a cylindrical body with traditional Japanese patterns and colouring. 

Kokeshi Dolls

On the other hand, Kokeshi dolls that are popular in Gunma prefecture, including Maebashi, break free from the traditional looks and are often referred to as “modern Kokeshi dolls”.

3 Things You Need to Know about Maebashi Kokeshi Dolls 3

Modern Kokeshi dolls are not bound by the traditional shape and strongly reflect the artisans’ high level of creativity and originality. Each of them is handmade by artisans with skills that have been passed down through generations and garnered through repeated practices. As seen in the video above, no pieces of wood are identical. The artisan has to visualise how to turn each wood into a beautiful art piece waiting to be brought home. 

Being the prefectural capital, modern Kokeshi dolls are said to have started in Maebashi and there is an annual competition held in the city since 1960, inspiring innovative Kokeshi dolls even till today.


While some display Kokeshi dolls for certain occasions, some choose to display them all year round as well. Since the dolls are made of natural wood with paintings and carvings, it is important to take care of them well to maintain their looks.

Here are 5 tips to keep your Kokeshi dolls in top shape.

  1. Avoid direct sunlight
    We suggest keeping the Kokeshi dolls displayed indoors and away from direct sunlight. Sunlight may cause sunburn on the wood and make its colours fade faster. (Wood and painting may still gradually fade due to aging.)
  1. Do not leave Kokeshi dolls in high temperature
    Avoid displaying the dolls near heat sources as it may cause discolouration or cracks due to heat expansion.

  2. Do not get wet, avoid humid places
    Avoid washing or wiping Kokeshi dolls with water. Refrain from displaying them in humid places. The paint may peel off, discolour, or the wood might crack as it dries. 
  1. Gently wipe off dust
    Remove dust by wiping it with a soft, dry cloth.
    Do not rub it strongly or wipe it with a wet cloth as it may cause scratches or discolouration.

  2. Wipe gently before storage
    If you decide to keep your Kokeshi dolls, they should be cleaned before putting them in the box.
    Firstly, gently wipe the entire surface with a soft and dry cloth. Next, wrap each doll and its accompanying accessories (if any) in cushioning material such as newspapers and put it in a box. Then, store the box in a place out of direct sunlight and away from high temperature and humidity.
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