The Art of Making Maebashi Kokeshi Doll
Creation of Maebashi Kokeshi doll from scratch – From choosing the wood to applying special kirikane techniques
Kokeshi dolls are often made using Mizuki and Cherry wood. Many artisans in Maebashi choose to work with Mizuki because it is soft and white, thus easier for carving and painting. Some also choose other types of wood that give off a different shade after being seasoned and polished. Since Maebashi Kokeshi dolls are created based on the artisan’s creativity, choosing the right piece of wood is also part and parcel of the Kokeshi doll-making technique.
In our previous video, we have shared how the craftsman would polish the wood, shape and carve the doll and then finally paint the face and kimono pattern by hand. Other than painting, there is also a very rare method of adding colours to Kokeshi dolls called kirikane.
Kirikane is a form of Japanese decorative technique whereby genuine gold leaf (or silver/platinum leaf) is cut into different patterns and has been used traditionally for Buddhist art. It is now applied to beyond Buddhist art, on Kokeshi dolls. Toa Sekiguchi (as introduced in the video above) is the only Kokeshi artisan in Japan using the rare kirikane technique on the dolls.
One has to be very careful when preparing the gold foil. Each gold leaf for kirikane is only 0.0001mm “thick” and will be blown off with a simple breath (never handle it if you feel like sneezing!). As such, it has to be handled with care using a pair of special bamboo tweezers.
As seen in the video above, Mr. Sekiguchi strengthens the gold leaves by ironing them slowly over a protective layer of paper. After the thicker gold foil has formed, the gold foil will be cut into different shapes and sizes (designs) with the help of a special bamboo knife. This cutting process depends on the creator’s eyes to gauge the measurement since it is impossible to draw any templates on the gold foil. In Mr. Sekiguchi’s case, he has meticulously prepared over 70 different shapes to be used on one Kokeshi doll.
Depending on the shape and surface area applied, the gold leaves help to give a different texture and finish to the doll, making its appearance change with a different angle of view.
In Japan, gold colour is used widely in decoration and symbolises wealth and prestige. However, for Mr. Sekiguchi’s Kokeshi doll, it is beyond colouring and decoration. It is a showcase of traditional Japanese art techniques and the result of patience.
Kokeshi doll competition in Maebashi City
Gunma prefecture, where Maebashi City is located, produces the most Kokeshi dolls in Japan. It is said that a Maebashi craftsman laid the foundation for modern Kokeshi dolls in 1910. Thereafter, the manufacture and sale of Kokeshi dolls became very popular in Maebashi and Gunma prefecture, thus allowing many vendors to start a business.
In 1957, the Gunma Kokeshi Cooperative was established by unifying these vendors. The Cooperative has been hosting the “All Gunma Modern Kokeshi Contest” since 1960, contributing to the promotion and development of the Kokeshi doll industry.
You can find this year’s (2022) winning selection here. (Japanese site)