Despite touring Japan for three solid weeks, including visits to the three most populated cities (and five out of the top ten) we nearly failed in our quest to bring home a mate for Mikki, our antique Kokeshi doll.
We had no trouble finding new, mass-produced Kokeshi dolls. Every souvenir shop in the country sells them. They’re nice enough looking, and probably worth collecting, especially if you aren’t familiar with the antique variety (also known as “vintage” in Japan).
Despite the fact that these newer, more modern models are identical from store to store, they’re often referred to as “creative” Kokeshi.
Mass-produced versions of dolls in more traditional styles are also readily available.
We wanted a true “vintage” Kokeshi – one that was made by hand and painted by hand. Prior to WWII, that was the primary way Kokeshi were made. But in the decades after the war, as Japan recovered and its economy took off, factories started churning out Kokeshi for the tourist trade. Local Kokeshi artisans dwindled in number, and nowadays far fewer Kokeshi are handmade. To find them, you have to venture into the northernmost part of Honshu (Japan’s biggest island). The closest we ever got was our first stop, Tokyo.
In retrospect, we probably should have spent more time in Tokyo looking for antique Kokeshi. But we’d only just arrived in Japan, and the city is so vast and there’s so much to see and do that our hunt for Kokeshi got put on the back burner for a while. We did poke our heads into a few antique stores, but no luck.
By the time we got to Kyoto, however, we were in full-on Kokeshi seek-and-extract mode. We spent an afternoon wandering the back streets of Kyoto’s old geisha neighborhood, Gion, where a multitude of antique shops sell all kinds of Japanese (and European) treasures. But everything for sale was pretty expensive, high-end stuff. Kokeshi dolls, even vintage ones, are comparatively cheap.
The wonderful staff at our hotel in Kyoto did some research for us. They found an antique store in another part of town that reportedly had hundreds of vintage Kokeshi dolls for sale. Unfortunately, the store was closed for summer vacation. They also told us about an antique Kokeshi doll exhibition at a small museum in Osaka, so we put that on our to-do list.
The exhibition was great, but of course none of those dolls were for sale, and none of the museum staff knew of any stores in Osaka that specialized in vintage Kokeshi. We were directed to another neighborhood full of general antique stores, but the outcome was the same as in Kyoto.
We were on the verge of giving up when our luck changed as we walked from Nanba to Shinsekai, two colorful, touristy neighborhoods in Osaka that are well worth visiting. The area between them, not so much. At one point we were smack dab in the middle of what can only be called a red-light district when we almost passed right by an antique store (because we weren’t expecting to see one there). Unlike the antique stores elsewhere in Osaka and Kyoto, this one was, to put it nicely, a lot more downscale. But it was still chock full of interesting things, including a few vintage Kokeshi.
At first, though, we didn’t see any that really interested us too much. Then we spotted her. Shoved into a corner, partly obstructed by other objects on display, she was one of the most unique Kokeshi dolls we’d ever laid eyes on. Standing 17 inches tall (or 43 centimeters for our Japanese and European friends) she was much larger than the typical Kokeshi. And instead of the usual concentric circles or other simple designs, her body was painted all the way around with beautiful scenes of Japanese countryside.
We got the attention of the store’s equally downscale proprietor, an older Japanese gentleman whose face registered surprise when we communicated our interest in the doll. He had to move other merchandise out of the way just so we could get a closer look at her splendor. Then he grabbed a cloth and wiped off what must have been several years’ worth of dust. Polished up and in full view, she was all the more fabulous. On her underneath side, someone (probably the artisan) had written the date June 13, 1985. By that year, mass-production of Kokeshi dolls was well under way. Which made this doll, a spectacular example of handcrafted folk art, the perfect find for us. We had to have her.
We used Google Translate to ask the shop owner the doll’s price.
3,800 yen, he punched into the display of his dollar store calculator (more likely it came from a 100-yen store – yes, they have those in Japan).
3,800 yen? Was he serious? Though antique Kokeshi are rarely expensive, 3,800 yen (about $38) was a very modest price for one so unusual and ornate. We agreed immediately. There was simply no good reason to haggle.
The shop owner diligently wrapped our new purchase in wads of newspaper and bagged her up for us to take away. I handed him a 5,000 yen note, and he had to search around for the key to his cash register. Then he had to move another item that was propped up against the register, blocking the drawer from opening. It looked like he hadn’t made a sale in days. He handed me the change and thanked us profusely, as if we’d bought something costing 10 or 100 times more. We said goodbye and went on our way. And we never did see another antique Kokeshi doll the rest of the trip.
Not that it matters. We have Manami now (that’s what we named her – it means beautiful love). You may be wondering, how do we know she’s a she? (Especially after seeing all the girly teenage boys in Japan.) It can be hard to tell the gender of an antique Kokeshi. One clue is to check the hairstyle. Manami is definitely female.
As we unpacked Manami from the suitcase after her long journey to her new home, we wondered, would she take a shine to Mikki? And vice versa? We couldn’t be sure. After all, Mikki is perhaps 30 years older than her (he’s undated, but it’s a reasonable guess). And as you can see, Manami towers over him. Not every pretty woman wants to be with a man half her height and twice her age.
But it seems they’re getting along just fine.
I think Manami likes Mikki’s big innocent eyes and his gentle touch. And it’s clear that Mikki is smitten too. As well he should be. After all, Manami is quite the head-turner. Isn’t she, Mikki?
She sure is.
Welcome to America, Manami. We hope you won’t miss Japan too much. Though we’ll understand if you do.
We miss it too.