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THE WORLD OF JAPANESE KOKESHI DOLLS EXHIBITION UNCOVERS THE COUNTRY'S CULTURE

Top pick: Playful traditions of Japan

WOODEN kokeshi dolls are to Japan what the šúpolky dolls made of dried corn leaves are to Slovakia. A touring exhibition of kokeshi dolls, organised by the Japan Foundation, is currently being shown at Bratislava's City Museum.
These curious dolls were created for the first time around 200 years ago in the Tohoku region in the north of Honshu island. The kokeshi dolls soon became well known and were being produced all over Japan.
They were first made by woodworkers, producers of bowls and other kitchen utensils, who would sell them to visitors of the local hot springs to give to their children. Each region, and even particular families, developed specific techniques and designs for their dolls. These techniques were then passed from father to son.


TRADITIONAL kokeshi dolls (top) and the kokeshi of today (bottom).
photo: Courtesy of Japan Foundation

WOODEN kokeshi dolls are to Japan what the šúpolky dolls made of dried corn leaves are to Slovakia. A touring exhibition of kokeshi dolls, organised by the Japan Foundation, is currently being shown at Bratislava's City Museum.

These curious dolls were created for the first time around 200 years ago in the Tohoku region in the north of Honshu island. The kokeshi dolls soon became well known and were being produced all over Japan.

They were first made by woodworkers, producers of bowls and other kitchen utensils, who would sell them to visitors of the local hot springs to give to their children. Each region, and even particular families, developed specific techniques and designs for their dolls. These techniques were then passed from father to son.

Rather than preserving the ancient kokeshi patterns, today's kokeshi craftsmen focus on expressing a certain theme when shaping the doll on a lathe.

"There are very few people who would want to learn the old technique from a master. More and more people want to learn making the modern-style kokeshi," says Mayumi Mashimo, attaché at the Japanese embassy in Bratislava.

The kokeshi dolls usually consist of two pieces of wood: one for the head and one for the body. The lathe work and the painting done by individual craftsmen used to follow the patterns and shapes of a certain district, which made it possible to recognise where the doll came from.

With their simple shape and their roots grounded deep in Japanese culture, kokeshi are often compared to haiku poetry.

"Both haiku and the kokeshi dolls are famous in the same region, in Tohoku, in the northeast of Japan. Maybe they give the same feeling because they are simple and not decorative," says Mashimo.

The organisers of the Bratislava exhibition say that the response from the Slovak audience has been very positive. Several of the visitors said they found the kokeshi beautiful and wanted to purchase one. Since there are none for sale at the exhibition, Mashimo recommends searching for one in an online store. She thinks that the price should be between 1,000 and 2,000 yen (€7.50 and €15).

Two additional features in the exhibition are wooden toys, which are made using the kokeshi materials and techniques, and temari balls. Some of the wooden toys are in the shapes of animals and vehicles with moving parts, others are drums and small tea sets.

Temari are unique hand-crafted balls made of fabric and embroidered with complex colourful patterns. Originally the temari balls were toys but today they only serve as objects d'art and are considered a prime example of Japan's rich cultural heritage.

"Kokeshi no longer serve as toys for children either, but they are very popular with Japanese people," says Mashimo, adding that most families have a kokeshi doll, either as a souvenir or a present. "Our family has five or six of them at home."

The World of Japanese Kokeshi Dolls exhibition is open from Tuesday to Friday between 10:00 and 17:00, and at weekends from 11:00 to 18:00 until May 25. The venue is the Old Town Hall (Stará radnica) at Primaciálne námestie 3 in Bratislava and admission is Sk30. For more information call 02/5443-4742.

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