Sunday, February 13, 2011

Modern Kokeshi Concours in Maebashi City

Under gray skies on Saturday, February 12th the kids, Naoko and I drove north on the Kan'etsu Highway from western Tokyo to Maebashi City in Gunma Prefecture for the 51st All Gunma Modern Kokeshi Concours (第51回全群馬近代こけしコンクール) held on the first floor of the magnificent Gunma Prefectural building. It was well worth the effort. 

Concours sign.
The Gunma kokeshi tradition is completely of the modern (近代 kindai) or creative (創作 sosaku) type, and sure enough there was not a single traditional (伝統 dento) kokeshi anywhere to be seen at the event. Complicating things further, the concours (French for "contest") had three kokeshi categories: Sosaku, Shingata (新型 new type), and Kiji Omocha (生地玩具 wooden toys). By the way, my wife Naoko tells me that purist Japanese kokeshi collectors are generally not interested in modern kokeshi dolls, which is their loss. However, I will say that at a certain point it becomes hard to say if they are really kokeshi dolls. In fact many examples at the creative kokeshis were akin to sculpture, as the artists gently brought out faces and shapes one would swear had been living in the piece of wood all along. This is simply not the same process as turning out a traditional kokeshi on a lathe.
Tokyo Shinbun Award Creative winner: "Soaring"
by Yasunobu Oki. 
As it turns out the All Gunma Modern Kokeshi Concours is a really big deal. The Prime Minister of Japan awarded the top prize, while the Japanese Minister of Economics and Manufacturing gave out two prizes, as did the Japanese Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Other awarders were the Gunma governor, the head of the Gunma prefectural assembly, the mayors of Maebashi city and Shibukawa city, one local newspaper and six national papers, Gunma Broadcasting, and other Gunma organizations. Total awards were handed out: 19 in the Sosaku category, 15 in the Shingata category, and three in the Kiji Omocha category. The competition pieces were not for sale, though some of the artisans brought piece to sell, all at very good prices.
Without a doubt Gunma Prefecture, centering on Shibukawa, Maebashi and the surrounding area, is a serious kokeshi-producing area. While many Gunma kokeshis are produced in factories (often for sale to Japanese tourists and foreigners traveling through Narita International Airport), their creators are also fully capable of producing the kinds of exquisite works seen here that clearly expand the definition of what a kokeshi might be.

New Type kokeshi dolls.
Creative kokeshis.
Creative kokeshi Forestry Agency Award winner: "Dance of Wind" by Kiyoshi Saito. 
A row of Creative kokeshi dolls.
Gunma Assembly Chairman Creative award winner: "Warm Spring" by Chiyomatsu Kano
Event poster.

Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries New Type kokeshi award winner: "Sound of Snow" by Tatsuo Kato. 

Shibukawa City Mayor New Type award winner: "Cherry Blossom Child" by Yoshie Okamoto. 

Small-Medium Enterprise Agency Director Creative kokeshi award winner: "Kaoru" by Fumio Tomidokoro.

Observing kokeshi dolls.
Kokeshis for sale.
More kokeshis for sale.


  1. Hello John,
    I am sorry to comment on such an old post, to ask you questions! But I hope that somehow you will get the comment.
    I live near Gunma-ken and I woulkd love to visit small kokeshi studios (I know Usaburo workshop very well but would like to meet with others artisans). But I am struggling with finding places, and Google map, even with japanese info, is no help. Do you know a resource? Do you have any recommendations?
    Thank you for sharing so many precious informations for fellow collectors!
    By the way, the very first time i went to Hiyane, about 1 year ago, Hiyane-san told me he remembered you very well. I suppose that gaijin customers are very few and so he thought maybe I knew you personnally. I don't, sure, but indeed, i came to his shop thanks to your blog.


    1. Laetitia,
      Thank you for your message and I'm glad this blog is helping you discover some kokeshis. It's true that finding their workshops can sometime feel difficult, but it can be done. Are you interested in traditional kokeshis? If so I would recommend the handbook "Traditional Kokeshi Artist File" by the Kamei Museum (I've discussed it on this blog). This book is Japanese only, but it has addresses and phone numbers so it's very useful. Once you have a specific address you shouldn't have any trouble with Google Maps. Better, though, would probably be to start with one of the traditional kokeshi museums, and if you're near Gunma you could probably make it to the museum in Shiroishi City (southern Miyagi Pref) in a few hours by car or train+bus or taxi. The Sato family makes their traditional kokeshis in Iwaki City in southern Fukushima, and that should only be a couple hours from you by car or train, though again you'd need to take a taxi to their workshop. I hesitate to recommend much more in Fukushima because of lingering radiation in some areas, but if that doesn't concern you then Fukushima, which is fairly near Gunma, would be a great choice. As for modern kokeshis, it looks like the next Modern Kokeshi Concours is going to be in early February 2017 in Maebashi, Gunma so you'll definitely want to attend that. There is also Mr. Fujikawa who was making modern kokeshis a few years ago in the mountains outside of Maebashi. I don't know if he's still in business, but he would be worth visiting if you have a car (I think a bus would be out of the question) -- I can send you his address (and possibly contact info) if you'd like. Finally, you can't go wrong with a trip to Naruko Onsen in Miyagi Pref, and the train stops right in the heart of the town where the kokeshi makers are located so you wouldn't even have to drive. Anyway, please send me questions any time as I'm always happy to help a fellow kokeshi enthusiast!