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The Truth Behind the Peculiar-Looking Nakanosawa Kokeshi Dolls

The Truth Behind the Peculiar-Looking Nakanosawa Kokeshi Dolls

Woodworkers in Northern Japan’s hot spring towns started creating dolls for children out of wood scraps over 150 years ago.

These dolls became known as kokeshi (こけし).

Kokeshi dolls rose from their humble origins and became a distinctive symbol of Northern Japan’s Tohoku region. They developed into something more than a simple children’s toy, and are now considered a lucky charm that guards the happiness of children!

 

The Unique Faces of Nakanosawa Kokeshi Dolls

Nakanosawa kokeshi dolls at Guest House Inawashiro Hanbog

Fukushima Prefecture’s Nakanosawa kokeshi (中ノ沢こけし) aren’t like any other kokeshi dolls: they typically have wide eyes with pink or red rims around them, thick black eyebrows and bulbous or long noses. Some Nakanosawa kokeshi dolls look really serious, although you can find smiling ones too!

Additionally, some Nakanosawa kokeshi dolls are known as “tako bozu” (たこ坊主, bald boys), and have a blue ring on the top of their heads and/or very little hair painted on them.

Why do they look like that, you may ask? Are they startled? Confused? Angry?

Neither, according to Fumio Kakizaki, a Nakanosawa kokeshi maker from Inawashiro town, Fukushima prefecture.

Fumio Kakizaki making a kokeshi doll

Nakanosawa kokeshi have a fascinating history.

 

The Origin of Nakanosawa Kokeshi’s Distinctive Face

The creator of Nakanosawa kokeshi was called Zenkichi Iwamoto. Iwamoto was an occasional entertainer, and it is believed that the face of Nakanosawa kokeshi could have been inspired by one of the props he used for his comedic act.

Nakanosawa Kokeshi Dolls at Takamiya Hotel Bonari no Mori

It is said that Iwamoto wanted to make an original kokeshi doll that looked like no other. The features he chose for his wooden dolls certainly didn’t leave anyone indifferent and Nakanosawa kokeshi became famous and celebrated around Japan and abroad.

 

The Power of Makeup: Nakanosawa Kokeshi’s Pink-Rimmed Eyes

Fumio Kakizaki admits that Nakanosawa kokeshi may look “grotesque” at first. But, after a closer look, he trusts you may be able to see something “innocent” and “simple” in them.

This is a picture he uses as a reference to paint his dolls. Certainly, the dolls have pink makeup and bright colored flowers similar those of the girl in the picture.

Fumio Kakizaki's workshop in Inawashiro Town is surrounded by a beautiful, lush natural environment

How Are These Dolls Made?  

 

Fumio Kakizaki's workshop

Kakizaki used to walk up the mountain to gather the dogwood he uses to make kokeshi dolls, he says, but now uses his car as the climb is steep and the wood is heavy. He is now 75 years old.

He walked us through his craft effortlessly, showing us how he chisels the dogwood logs, chops them into smaller pieces and shapes the head of a kokeshi doll—you can watch a video about the fascinating process here.

Apart from kokeshi in many shapes and sizes, Kakizaki also makes other wooden toys like wooden spinning tops, which, traditionally, boys would play with.

Wooden spinning tops and other toys

Ejiko kokeshi (嬰児籠 こけし) are kokeshi dolls shaped like “ejiko”, a type of basket used in the past to carry babies in rural villages.

An ejiko kokeshi doll

Nakanosawa kokeshi are long-lasting dolls passed down through generations. They are handcrafted from start to finish, so they’re more than a souvenir to bring back home—each one is a unique piece of folk art that are sure to serve as a warm reminder of your trip to Tohoku in Northern Japan.

 

 

You’ll find Nakanosawa kokeshi dolls in many parts of Fukushima prefecture, and, of course, in Nakanosawa Onsen itself.

Tsuchiyu Onsen (土湯温泉) is another spot in Fukushima prefecture that is famous for its own type of kokeshi dolls, Tsuchiyu kokeshi (土湯こけし). You can make your own kokeshi doll at Matsuya Souvenir Shop in Tsuchiyu Onsen.

 

Special thanks to Fumio Kakizaki for his invaluable guidance and insight on the fascinating world of Nakanosawa kokeshi dolls.

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  1. Useful Information

    A Complete Guide to Visiting Fukushima During Winter

    The coldest months of the year bring beautiful scenery to Fukushima prefecture.  Kaneyama Fureai Hiroba Viewpoint From snow-capped mountains and thatched-roof houses in the Aizu area to the refreshing view of the sunrise over the iconic Bentenjima Shrine in the Hattachi coast, there is a wide variety of attractions and activities to enjoy during winter in Fukushima. We’ve compiled some useful information to make your winter getaway to Fukushima prefecture smoother and more enjoyable! Yanaizu Town Transportation Checking the Status of the Roads Before Departure Especially in the Aizu and Central areas of Fukushima, a snow storm could occasionally block some roads or affect visibility (a phenomenon known as a whiteout). Checking the status of the roads makes your trip safer and can help you foresee potential delays. This webpage shows camera footage of the status of the roads (available only in Japanese). Click or tap on the camera button in the area you’re planning on visiting. Select the road you’d like to see on the new pop-up window. In most rent-a-car facilities, you'll be asked where you’re going and be given a vehicle equipped with what you need (winter tires, chains, etc.). Preparing for Longer Travel Times Because road conditions change unexpectedly, it’s best to expect longer travel times, particularly if you’re traveling by bus or car. As an example, check the following estimates: Aizu-Wakamatsu City to Ouchi-juku: normally takes around 45 min. (90 min on snow-covered roads) Ouchi-juku to Tadami: normally takes around 90 min. (150 min. on snow-covered roads) Tadami to Kaneyama Town: normally takes around 40 min. (90 min. on snow-covered roads) Kaneyama Town to Mishima Town: normally takes around 30 min. (90 min. on snow-covered roads) Mishima Town to Aizu-Wakamatsu City: normally takes around 50 min. (120 min. on snow-covered roads). Finding the Public Transportation Winter Schedule Some buses or trains, like the Saruyuugou loop bus in Ouchi-juku, have different schedules in the winter. The service can either become reduced or extended for special events. If you’ll be relying on public transportation, take a close look at the time schedule for any notations of changes during the winter. If it’s only in Japanese and you can’t read it, inquire at the closest station or local tourist information office (or send us a message and we’ll do our best to assist you). Some hotels and ski resorts offer shuttle bus services to and from the closest station, such as the Minowa Ski Resort free shuttle bus service from Fukushima station. Be sure to make a reservation in advance. Activities Extreme Onsen Experience We’ve been getting many inquiries about the Extreme Onsen Experience recently. For safety reasons, it’s not possible to climb Mount Adatara when it’s covered by snow, so the tour becomes temporarily unavailable until the snow melts in the spring (write us a message if you’d like to be notified once the tour becomes available again!). Alternatively... Soaking in the hot springs while contemplating a snowy landscape is a truly magical experience that you can enjoy in many other onsen towns in Fukushima, like the nostalgic Tsuchiyu Onsen Town. Tsuchiyu Onsen Town Goshiki-numa Ponds If you’d like to visit the Goshiki-numa ponds during winter, we recommend booking a snowshoe tour and going with an experienced guide, as travelers are discouraged from visiting independently. Goshikinuma Ponds Snowshoe Experience If you’re interested in the experience, recommend contacting Aizu Dream Development, which organizes winter tours to Goshikinuma, and has English support. Other Places That Are or May Become Closed for the Winter Here are some sightseeing spots, experiences and tours that are only (or mostly) available from spring to fall (usually April to November) and could thus become unavailable during the winter: Unavailable In the Winter Still available, but... The Bandai-Azuma Skyline Ebisu Circuit could become closed in case of heavy snowfall (check the live camera and contact Ebisu Circuit directly for more information)   Crossing Mugenkyo Ravine by Ferry (Mugenkyo no Watashi)   Goshiki-numa and Oze National Park are closed to individual travelers and some of their facilities become unavailable. For safety reasons, it is advised for travelers to only visit as part of a guided tour organized by a reputable company or with an appropriate permit. Extreme Onsen Experience, Soma City Bamboo Fishing Tour, SUP Experience at Menuma Pond and the Ouchi-juku Time Slip & Soba Making Experience. Experiences that are still available during the winter months: The Ouchi-juku kimono experience,  Kitakata Ramen-Making Experience, Kitakata Organic Vegetable Harvesting Experience & Lodging, Minamiaizu Private Taxi Program and the Minamisoma Coast Trekking.     Finding Winter Destinations While some places and experiences enter an hibernation of sorts, others take center stage. Ski slopes, with powder snow and lots of activities for the entire family, become one of the main attractions in Fukushima (check out our 2-day skiing itinerary here). Winter festivals, illuminations and other events enliven several spots around Fukushima (check our calendar for winter events in Fukushima in 2023). If You’re Planning The Ultimate Winter Road Trip... Bring snacks and drinks with you! Japanese convenience stores and vending machines are spread out in remote rural areas. It’s always safer to bring snacks and drinks with you, particularly if you are traveling with children. If you would like to know where to go for pit stops, roadside stations, known in Japanese as “michi no eki” (道の駅) usually have local specialty foods and souvenirs. Prepare for the Unexpected—and the Beautiful We recently visited the famous No. 1 Tadami River Bridge Viewpoint with my coworker. In the morning, we were told that the JR Tadami Line, which famously runs over the scenic bridge, had canceled operations for the day due to heavy snowfall, but we decided to go anyway. When we arrived at the viewpoint, it was snowing heavily and there was zero visibility—the iconic view was nothing but an indistinguishable mass of white and gray. We decided to drive to another scenic point (Kaneyama Fureai Hiroba Viewpoint) hoping the sky would clear up. It finally did and we were lucky to get beautiful shots of both places. You never know when you can enjoy a snow-covered landscape with clear skies. Winter is a delightful season to travel around Fukushima and take in the views of its many scenic towns, winter festivals, and glistening lakes nested in the mountains. Miyakoji Area in Tamura City The coastal area is also worth a visit during this time; its famous sunshine and tropical feel make it a perfect getaway from the harsher cold inland. If you’re thinking of visiting the sunny city of Iwaki, check out our recent post, 5 Things to Do in Iwaki City This Winter. If you have any questions about traveling in Fukushima, please send it to us using the contact form you can find on our website. We hope you enjoy your stay in Fukushima!

    A Complete Guide to Visiting Fukushima During Winter
  2. Useful Information

    2023 Winter Festivals in Fukushima: Dates and Times

    During the first months of the year, Fukushima prefecture becomes enlivened with colorful festivals and traditional events. Craft displays in Iwaki, snow festivals in Tadami and Ouchi-juku, and one of Japan’s most famous daruma markets in Shirakawa, to name a few, are excellent ways to experience the true folk of Fukushima! Here are the dates and times for some of the winter festivals taking place in Fukushima prefecture in 2023: Tadami Snow Festival (只見雪まつり) The Tadami Snow Festival is scheduled this year after a three-year hiatus. Place: In front of Tadami Station, Tadami Town, Minamiaizu District, Fukushima Pref. 968-0421 Date: Festival eve celebration: February 10 (Friday) February 11 (Saturday) and 12 (Sunday), 2023 Time: All day during the weekend, evening on Friday More information here. Ouchi-juku Snow Festival (大内宿雪まつり) Ouchi-juku’s Snow Festival features traditional Japanese performances, an incredible firework show, and a town that feels like it still exists in the Edo Period, illuminated solely by the light of lanterns made of snow. Place: Ouchi-juku (Yamamoto, Ouchi, Shimogo Town, Minamiaizu District, Fukushima Pref. 969-5207) Time: Varies depending on the event (see event website for details) Date: February 5 (Sunday) to February 11 (Saturday) More information here. Higashiyama Onsen Candle Festival (雪見ろうそく) Every evening from Christmas until around the end of February (depending on the amount of snow), Higashiyama Onsen town is filled with the lights of candles. Place: Higashiyama Onsen, Aizu-Wakamatsu City (map) Date: From December 17, 2022 (Saturday) until February 28, 2023 (Tuesday) Time: In December and January: from 16:30 to 18:00. In February: From 17:00 to 18:30. Aizu Painted Candle Festival (会津絵ろうそくまつり) Aizu Painted Candle Festival is when Oyakuen Garden really comes into its element, as the garden becomes 1 of 2 main stages during the 2 day festival period. The other stage is at Tsuruagajo Castle. Oyakuen Garden often hosts live performances of traditional Japanese music during the evening during the festival. Tens of thousands of candles illuminate the castle and the garden over the 2 day festival period, creating absolutely stunning scenes as the sun sets. Place: Tsurugajo Castle and Oyakuen Garden Date: February 10 (Friday) and 11 (Saturday), 2023. Time: From 17:30 until 20:30 More information here.   Shirakawa Daruma Market (白河だるま市) 700 stalls selling daruma standing along a 1.5km long street in central Shirakawa City during the Shirakawa Daruma Market. There are 18 different varieties of daruma to choose from, all looking for a loving home and an owner to give them a goal or wish to look after!   Place: The main street in front of Shirakawa Station that runs parallel to the train line. Date: February 11 (Saturday), 2023. Time: Not specified. More information here. Iwaki Tsurushi-bina Matsuri (いわきつるしびな祭り) This festival was started in recent years as a way of celebrating the Nakanosaku district of Iwaki City, and rejuvenating the area. During the festival, hundreds of decorative items hand-made by local people from chirimen fabric – the fabric used to create kimonos – are displayed and sold over a period of two days. Place: Nakanosaku, Iwaki City (Map) Date: From January 28 (Saturday) to February 5 (Sunday), 2023. Time: From 10:00 to 16:00. More information here. Nanokado Hadaka Mairi Festival (七日堂裸詣り) During this traditional event - which draws many tourists every year - local men clad in loincloths make the challenging climb to the top of Enzoji Temple, in the hopes of ensuring happiness and protection from disease in the year to come. This event is celebrated every year on January 7th. It was already held in 2023. Place: Enzoji Temple, Jikemachi-ko 176, Yanaizu Town, Kawanuma District, Fukushima Pref. 969-7201 Date: January 7 (Saturday), 2023. Time: From 20:00. More information here.

    2023 Winter Festivals in Fukushima: Dates and Times
  3. Useful Information

    Ideas for Winter Trips in Fukushima

    I decided to write a bucket list of things to try out in Fukushima during the winter months!   1) TAKE IN THE VIEWS OF BEAUTIFUL OKU-AIZU   The Tadami Line train connects Aizu-Wakamatsu City with Niigata Prefecture via some of Fukushima’s most beautiful rural towns and villages. The route of this train ride is breath-taking throughout the year, and winter is no exception. I especially want to check out the view of Oshi Shuraku Hamlet (大志集落) in Kaneyama Town, which you can see in the photo below. This view spot is located at Kaneyama Fureai Hiroba (かねやまふれあい広場 – Map), which is a 10-minute walk from Kaneyama Station on the Tadami Line.       2) ATTEND SNOW FESTIVALS (AIZU, MINAMIAIZU)   Most of the snow festivals held in Fukushima take place on the same weekend of the year, meaning that it’s pretty difficult to visit more than one per year! I have attended both Ouchi-juku and Tadami Snow Festivals (mentioned below) in the same day, but I would recommend taking your time at each festival instead of rushing between them.       AIZU PAINTED CANDLE FESTIVAL   Aizu Painted Candle Festival is when Oyakuen Garden really comes into its element, as the garden becomes 1 of 2 main stages during the 2 day festival period. The other stage is at Tsuruagajo Castle. Oyakuen Garden often hosts live performances of traditional Japanese music during the evening during the festival. Tens of thousands of candles illuminate the castle and the garden over the 2 day festival period, creating absolutely stunning scenes as the sun sets. This festival is held to celebrate the traditional craft of Aizu’s painted candles, which have been produced in the region for 500 years. DATE: Second Friday and Saturday of February LOCATION: Tsuruga-jo Castle Venue (Map) & Oyakuen Venue (Map)     HIGASHIYAMA ONSEN CANDLE FESTIVAL   Every evening from Christmas until around the end of February (depending on the amount of snow), Higashiyama Onsen town is filled with the lights of candles. The lighting of these candles usually occurs between 16:00 to 18:00, so if you are staying in this onsen town during the winter, be sure to check it out. DATE: Late December – Late February LOCATION: Higashiyama Onsen, Aizu-Wakamatsu City (Map)     OUCHI-JUKU SNOW FESTIVAL   Ouchi-juku’s Snow Festival features traditional Japanese performances, an incredible firework show, and a town that feels like it still exists in the Edo Period, illuminated solely by the light of lanterns made of snow. There are plenty of nearby onsen ryokan where you can warm up & stay overnight at the end of the evening. Not much beats that for a snow festival, does it? DATE: Second weekend of February LOCATION: Ouchi-juku, Shimogo Town   TADAMI SNOW FESTIVAL   This snow festival is the largest in Fukushima Prefecture. Often welcoming special guests (such as Kumamon) this snow festival features snow sculptures, igloos, places for kids to play, and lots of traditional crafts and tasty food to check out. Oh, and also a fantastic fireworks show. DATE: Second Saturday and Sunday of February LOCATION:Tadami Eki Mae Hiroba (JR只見駅前広場) (Map)   3) PICK-YOUR-OWN STRAWBERRIES IN SOMA (SOMA CITY)   Soma area is well known for its bright-coloured, juicy strawberries. I’ve been lucky enough to try some in my office when visitors have brought them as gifts for my colleagues, but I really want to go to Soma and pick some strawberries of my own!   4) ATTEND CRAFT FESTIVALS (SHIRAKAWA CITY, IWAKI CITY)     SHIRAKAWA DARUMA MARKET   Daruma are good luck charms originating from Buddhism. It is a common new year’s traditional in Japan to buy a daruma soon after the start of the new year. After purchasing a daruma, you should think carefully and decide on 1 wish or goal that you want to achieve during the year. Then, draw in the daruma’s left eye (or right eye if you are facing it), and then draw in the other eye when your wish or goal is completed. 700 stalls selling daruma standing along a 1.5km long street in central Shirakawa City during the Shirakawa Daruma Market. There are 18 different varieties of daruma to choose from, all looking for a loving home and an owner to give them a goal or wish to look after! DATE: Held annually on February 11 LOCATION: The main street in front of Shirakawa Station that runs parallel to the train line.     IWAKI TSURUSHI BINA FESTIVAL   This festival was started in recent years as a way of celebrating the Nakanosaku district of Iwaki City, and rejuvenating the area. During the festival, hundreds of decorative items hand-made by local people from chirimen fabric – the fabric used to create kimonos – are displayed and sold over a period of 2days. These Tsurushi Bina decorations are traditionally given to young girls on Girls’ Day, in March. They come in all shapes and sizes, but in Fukushima I have seen lots of decorations shaped like animals and vegetables. This festival represents a rare opportunity to see so many of these beautiful, painstakingly handmade decorations in one place, so I really want to go check it out next year. DATE: Early February LOCATION:清航館, Nakanosaku, Iwaki City (Map) ENTRANCE FEE:100 yen     5) HIT THE SKI SLOPES   This year I really hope I get to try out skiing in Fukushima Prefecture. There are so many different ski areas spread all over the huge prefecture, from the relatively temperate slopes in Inawashiro, where skiiers are blessed with a view of Lake Inawashiro as they descend down the slopes, to the deep snow country of Hinoemata. Aizu Ski Japan is a really good English-language website to use as a resource for getting to grips with the type of ski areas available in the prefecture.       6) GO WAKASAGI (SMELT) FISHING Rent out a tent at the centre of Lake Hibara in Urabandai, make a hole in the ice in front of you, and try out smelt fishing this winter! There are a number of different companies that take visitors out onto the lake during the winter months, when smelt fishing is allowed to take place, but it may be a little difficult to try this out if you don’t speak Japanese. Rental costs all depend on the individual company or organisation. LOCATION: Lake Hibara (Map)       7) WATCH THE SUN RISE ON NEW YEAR’S DAY This beautiful spot on the coast of Iwaki City is a very special place for local people, especially fisherman, who visit Hattachi Coast on New Year’s Day to show their faith to the Buddha of Hattachi Yakushi. The Hattachi Coast is one of many places on the coast of Fukushima that was devastated by the 2011 tsunami, and is therefore a very bittersweet place for many locals. It has not lost its spiritual hold over visitors though, or its breathtaking scenery. A seriously beautiful spot for those who like photography, and those who would like to make connections with local folk from Iwaki during the early hours of the new year. LOCATION: Hattachi Coast, Iwaki City (Map)

    Ideas for Winter Trips in Fukushima
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