Sunday, September 16, 2012

Let's Paint Kokeshi Dolls!

This past fall,  our base MWR sponsored a tour to a kokeshi doll factory in Gunma Prefecture.  Since I love cute, wooden kokeshi dolls- I have a flea market collection that I have been working on since we moved here, and Little TF has a few on display in her room- I jumped at the chance to go on this tour!

The Usaburo Kokeshi factory is the only remaining kokeshi company that operates completely in Japan.  All other companies out-source at least some parts of their production to countries like the Philippines or Thailand.  Keeping Japanese business in Japan is not the only thing that makes this factory awesome, though- Usaburo Kokeshi also sponsors tours of their factory!

We got to see every step of the kokeshi doll production, minus the tree chopping.  It was fascinating seeing how these cute and personable wooden dolls come to life!

JMSDF military kokeshi.

All the artisans working at the factory are very skilled.  Many of them have won awards, including the Prime Minister's Award.  The artists at this factory specialize in Creative Kokeshi.  Traditional kokeshi are said to have originated in northeastern Japan (the Tohoku region), and are very simple, tubular dolls in a limited range of colors.  They are charming in their own way, but I prefer the creative kokeshi.  The artist's imagination is the only limit!

Somewhat creepy, disembodied kokeshi heads.

The creative kokeshi even include Mickey Mouse.  Of course, Japan.  Of course.

Headless hair...also slightly creepy.
This room is where the basic kokeshi shapes are carved.

Tubes of wood are excited to turn into kokeshi!

The tour was fascinating.  But the real draw of Usaburo Kokeshi is in their showroom, where you can paint your own kokeshi.  This is the main reason I had to go on this tour.  You can buy kokeshi in many places in Japan.  Maybe not kokeshi created by people with Very Impressive Awards, but kokeshi, nonetheless.  You can't paint one just anywhere, though!

Brushes and paint are at the ready!

Beyond excited to paint my kokeshi...

I forgot to take an "after" picture. But I painted my kokeshi for Little TF, and put a Hello Kitty on a hot pink kimono.  She loved it. Kawaii!

Artisans paint the carved kokeshi.

Once our kokeshi dolls were painted, we had to wait while Usaburo Kokeshi applied a sealant and dried them.  The factory's extensive showroom was conveniently on hand, with shopping to help us pass the time!

Chinese Zodiac kokeshi.  Since I went last year, in the Year Of The Rabbit, the rabbit is on display in the middle.
Hinamatsuri (Girls' Day) kokeshi.  These Prince and Princess kokeshi are properly displayed in late February/early March.
Let's not forget the boys!  Fearsome, samurai kokeshi! 
Adorable Christmas kokeshi.  
Gorgeous kokeshi.  Most of the kokeshi in the store were reasonably priced, but these were much bigger and quite expensive.  
So cute! And pricey!
Back on the reasonably priced side of things were the rows of seasonal kokeshi.  I picked up a winter plum blossom kokeshi for my daughter.  It had a pink kimono and white hair, which I thought was most appropriate as my daughter is blonde.
For those who prefer a little more whimsy, there were silly, cartoon character kokeshi.  So funny!

Of course, everyone on the tour had to get photos taken behind the huge, wooden kokeshi outside of the showroom.  If you have extra time, make sure to visit the factory's museum.  The handiwork of former craftsmen are showcased inside!

Don't want to wait for another MWR tour? Usaburo Kokeshi is open year-round, with the exception of the New Year Holiday from December 29-January 4.  The painting area can accommodate individuals or groups, and is open from 8:30 am to 3 pm.  For more information on kokeshi painting, including pricing, types of kokeshi, and group painting  times, please visit Usaburo Kokeshi's information page.  The factory conducts tours from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, with a lunch break from 12 pm to 1 pm.  The tour takes about 50 minutes (I'm not sure if the tour is offered in English or not). There is free parking on site.

Can't make it to Gumma Prefecture but still want to shop?  Visit Usaburo Kokeshi's home page to place a kokeshi order!

Usaburo Kokeshi CO.,LTD.
 Maker, Wholesale, Sell direct)
Zip 370-3501
1591, Nagaoka, Shinto-mura, Kitagumma-gun, Gumma Japan

Disclaimer:  I do my best to make sure all my information is accurate.  However, details may change or I may just be flat-out wrong.  Please let me know if something needs a correction.  Thank-you!


  1. how much do you have to pay to paint the kokeshi?

  2. I would recommend contacting the company via the info provided in the post. I'm no longer living in Japan. :(