It’s not everyday that you get the chance to meet a third generation traditional Kokeshi master. So we felt very honored that Selena arranged for us to meet with Akira Suzuki and his wife at their Kokeshi doll workshop in Akiusato.
There are many modern Kokeshi dolls sold all over Japan and are common souvenirs (omiyage). However, traditional Kokeshi dolls are now made only in the Tohoku area, which is the north-eastern part of Japan. Wikipedia defines Kokeshi as follows:
Kokeshi Japanese dolls, originally from northern Japan. They are handmade from wood, have a simple trunk and an enlarged head with a few thin, painted lines to define the face. The body has a floral design painted in red, black, and sometimes yellow, and covered with a layer of wax. One characteristic of kokeshi dolls is their lack of arms or legs. The bottom is marked with the signature of the artist. They are exchanged amongst friends with written messages stored within them as tokens of friendship., are
The hotel shuttle dropped us in the circle near their shop and both Akira and his wife were waiting for us. We received a warm welcome and exchanged the customary pleasantries. Luckily, Selena had also arranged for us to try our hand at painting our own dolls in the workspace they had set up for us.
I must say that it is much harder then it looks. I think that my brother-in-law would be much better suited for Kokeshi painting than either one of us. Can you guess which one is Brad’s and which one is mine?
Ok. So mine is the lighter one made from dogwood and Brad’s is the darker one made from cherry. Did you guess right? I love how Brad’s doll turned out, especially the face. I went with a less traditional look and personally I think my red bow looks more like a boo boo than a bow. But everyone seemed to like the curls.
One of the things that I noticed when we first arrived was the display of some cute Kokeshi cat dolls. So naturally I asked if I could try my hand at painting my own cat doll. At the time Akira was back in his shop carving, but when he heard that I wanted to make a cat doll he stopped working in order to give me a proper lesson on how to draw a Japanese cat.
Now the pressure was on to create my own version of the Kokeshi cat. He even showed me how to draw the special Japanese characters on the body of the doll. I think he said they meant happy or lucky or both. Honestly I’m not 100% sure, but I think my cat looks happy.
While I was painting my Kokeshi cat, Brad asked for permission to take pictures of Akira in his workshop. Thankfully Selena was there to interpret his request because normally pictures are not allowed. I think he must have liked Brad. It must have been because they shared the same sense of style and humor.
Akira is quite skilled at his craft. In fact he is a champion Kokeshi master and has the trophy to prove it. Here is the Kokeshi doll that took first place in all of Japan. The little wooden plaque in the picture declares his champion status and is signed by the Prime Minister.
It was obvious that we shared a common bond with one another despite the language barrier. There was just a feeling of mutual respect and appreciation. We ended up purchasing several dolls and small items to take home with us. Cherished momentos of a very special afternoon spent in Akiusato.
In Japan they often show their appreciation by giving gifts as a token of their thanks. Akira personally gifted us with two of his original works of art.
In exchange we offered them a little handmade Wisonsin sachet that was filled with pine shavings. The gift giving customs in Japan can be very tricky to understand. There are many rules and meanings. But they seemed equally pleased with their gift as we were with ours.
“The manner of giving is worth more than the gift.” ~ Pierre Corneille