Distinctive, Modern-Looking Faces of Ishinomaki Kokeshi Dolls

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Different types of Ishinomaki kokeshi dolls

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi — Kokeshi wooden dolls made in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, are catching people’s eyes with designs that are quite untraditional. The painted statuettes are often decorated with blue stripes and red fish, and they have a gentle smile on their face.

Takatoshi Hayashi, 49, started making the dolls in 2015 with the hope of creating something that would encourage people to visit the city, which suffered much damage in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

“I hoped they would be a souvenir of the city,” he said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A wooden block is whittled on a lathe to create the shape of a doll.

One of Hayashi’s kokeshi dolls has blue stripes, evoking the sea, and red fish on its body that is traditionally shaped. The doll has large eyes, a mouth with slightly upturned corners and pinkish cheeks. He always paints it with a natural expression on their face.

“An unnatural smile would be tiring to paint and look at,” he said.

The top of the head resembles the iconic Mt. Fuji, with fish motifs decorating the body.

Hayashi, the third-generation operator of a kimono store, started making kokeshi when he was around 40 years old. He visited several traditional ateliers in the prefecture and learned different crafting techniques, including those of Zao’s Togatta-style dolls.

However, he never became a full-fledged apprentice. Hayashi said that he learned 80% of the skills himself. Using a lathe, he whittles wood spun at a high speed to create the kokeshi’s shape, and strives to create dolls with unique expressions.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kokeshi dolls in wood shaped like cakes

“I don’t want them to resemble traditional kokeshi. However, I want them still to be seen as kokeshi,” he said.

“They are not traditional and do not have to be a certain shape,” Hayashi said. “I make them freely.”

The charm of his creations lies in their distinctive and amusing styles, as well as the wealth of originality tapped in to creating them.

Among his innovative creations is a kokeshi doll with an octopus on its head and another wearing a hood that looks like a cat’s head. One is in a wooden Swiss roll, while another is in a strawberry shortcake, adding a humorous touch to the creations.

One of his works won an award at a national kokeshi competition.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
“Ishinomaki Kokeshi Ball,” a design that earned Takatoshi Hayashi an award at a national kokeshi competition. Small kokeshi pop out when it’s moved.

Due to the pandemic, Hayashi suspended kokeshi-painting workshops that he held at Tree Tree Ishinomaki, his studio, and other places around the country. But he is working to resume them.

“I want to introduce Ishinomaki kokeshi to many people and promote the city,” he said. “I’d also like to continue producing high-quality dolls and hold a solo exhibition someday.”

Hayashi sells his works on his online store as well as at his kimono store. He also shares the process of making kokeshi and their charm on YouTube.

Collaboration with Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

Kokeshi made from bats used by players on the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles baseball team, which is based in Miyagi Prefecture, have also caught people’s attention.

In 2021, Hayashi proposed the idea of making kokeshi from broken bats. Scratches and marks made by baseballs are left as is on the wood.

Courtesy of Rakuten Baseball, Inc.
Kokeshi dolls made out of broken baseball bats

Hayashi said such marks are quite special because they were made by professional baseball players.

The dolls are painted in crimson red and gold, the team’s colors.

“I love the fact that wood destined to be discarded was born again and is cherished,” Hayashi said.

About 50 bats were made into kokeshi dolls during the 2022 baseball season, according to the team’s public relations office.

Auctions for the kokeshi dolls are held from time to time, with announcements made on the team’s official website.