The 29th ALl Japan creative kokeshi exhibition

November 16th 2023, Written by Taru

As the summer’s hot and humid weather makes way for more cool and chilly autumn days I get a reminder that soon it’ll be time to visit Gunma prefecture for the annual creative kokeshi exhibition.

Around the same time as the exhibition the neighboring Ikaho Onsen town gets colored with beautiful autumn colors, especially around Kajika Bridge and this year the sight was truly wonderful. 

kajika bridge in ןkaho onsen

Ikaho Onsen is a hot spring town with rich history. In the center of it you can find 365 stone steps which take you all the way up to Ikaho Shrine. There are many shops and restaurants along them so you can climb slowly and enjoy many sights, smells and flavors along the way. 

One of these shops is the brand new Usaburo Kokeshi Ikaho Cafe & Gallery. The two story building is located about 30 meters away from the famous stone steps in a quiet alley and has a cute kokeshi doll along a hot beverage sign outside. The 1st floor has a big selection of Usaburo kokeshi for sale along other wooden items. It also has a kitchen where you can order drinks and snacks like this yummy small pound cakes in the shape of a kokeshi. The 2nd floor has some unique kokeshi on display and lots of cozy sitting space.

Usaburo Kokeshi Shop Ikaho Onsen
Pound Cake In The Shape Of A Kokeshi Doll
The Usaburo Kokeshi Ikaho Cafe And Gallery

The exhibition itself started the next day and what a pleasure it was to see so many amazing works of art together in one place!

Gunma Kokeshi Exhibition 2023
Gunma Kokeshi Exhibition 2023

One of the first works that caught my eye was Oki Izumi’s kokeshi titled 秋に想う, which can be translated to “Thinking About Autumn”. Made of mizuki (dogwood) which is pretty close to skin color makes her look almost real. Her hair flowing down like a waterfall around her body, and the child-like innocent expression of hers along with the hands under the chin creates a marvelous piece. I can only imagine how difficult it was for her to carve the hair in such detail and elegance.

Another one of my favorite dolls was made by Fujikawa Kazumi for which he also won a prime award. Her title is 曇の行方 can be translated to “Where Clouds Go”. 

Made of two pieces of warm toned keyaki (zelkova) wood, the body depicts a mountain scenery which resembles the place it was also made – surrounded by Mt.Haruna in the west, Mt.Akagi in the east and a small chain of mountains in the north in the border with Nigata and Nagano. Whether the white part is snow covered mountains in the distance or clouds – that’s up to the beholder to decide.

Fujikawa Kazumi Creative Kokeshi Where Clouds Go

In the corner furthest away from the entrance this couple of playful kokeshi dolls were displayed. They were both made by Aoki Ryoka who turned 92 this year! Their titled are: 手まり少女 (left) and 初雪 (right). Translated to English they mean Temari Girl (left) and First Snow (right). Temari balls are a folk art form and Japanese craft in which balls are made from embroidery. The left doll seems to be happily playing with a temari and looking for someone to pass it to while the right doll seems to be covering, perhaps from the falling snow or maybe to escape the coldness.

Aoki Ryoka Creative Kokeshi Dolls
Chiya Tomidokoro Creative Kokeshi Flowing

Always showcasing lots of style and originality, this creative kokeshi doll by Chiya Tomidokro is titled たゆたう which means “To Flow” or “To Drift About”.
Having a very unusual turquoise hair and a blue body carved in the shape of water and bubbles with jellyfish swimming around it really gives the appearance that she is  calmly floating in the blue ocean. Don’t miss the two seashells which are used as hairpins.

The exhibition hall was full of beautiful dolls which made it even harder to decide which one to photograph first. The kokeshi doll on the left was made by Sato Kiyoshi and she’s titled おおぞら which means “Wide Sky”. It shows a beautiful and elaborate tree design with birds flying. The right doll was made by Shirahama Kumiko and she’s titled あじさい which means “Hydrangea”. In a way she reminds me of Shirahama san herself, probably thanks to the very kind and positive expression of the doll.

Kokeshi Doll By Saito Kiyoshi
Kokeshi Doll By Shirahama Kumiko

On the left was a very unique kokeshi made by Usaburo Yoshihiro titled 苔こけし (kokekokeshi) with “Koke” meaning Moss. The cute head fits perfectly on top of the glass vase. The right doll is titled ホシオビ and she was made by Yasunobu Oki who creates some of the most unique dolls. He transforms unusual pieces of wood into elegant & artistic kokeshi dolls.

Unique Kokeshi By Usaburo
Kokeshi Doll By Oki Yasunobu

Next up were two stunning dolls, left one by Kato Tatsuo titled 浮雲に乗る空の彼方に which means “Floating On a Cloud Yonder”. The doll on the right was made by Sekiguchi Toa and she’s titled 平安 which means Heian. It means both a name of a period in Japan and also “Peace, Tranquility” which is brilliantly conveyed in her pose as well as in her eyes and expression.

Kokeshi Doll By Kato Tatsuo
Kokeshi Doll By Sekiguchi Toa

The left doll was made by the talented and long time kokeshi artist Yahagi Ichiko who also used to teach a kokeshi class in Saitama prefecture. This doll is titled 彩華 (Saika) which means “Colorful Flowers”. She also has blue flowers combined into her hair. The doll on the right was made by Yuya Ohno who is one of the young and promising kokeshi artist who have been practicing the art in recent years. His designs are very unusual and intriguing and I can’t wait to see what other works he’ll create in the future.

Kokeshi Doll By Yahagi Ichiko
Kokeshi Doll By Yahagi Ichiko

Outside of the exhibition hall there was a table with works submitted by the public. They were divided into two – one section displaying works by school children from the area and the 2nd section displayed works by the public regardless of age. Among them were some extremely cute and amusing dolls displaying the talent and affection the people have for kokeshi.

award winning kokeshi submitted by the public
Kokeshi Submitted By The Public To The Competition
Beautiful Kokeshi Doll

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