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Japan’s abundant forests meant all kinds of wooden toys were made, especially in mountainous regions. Recently, simple kokeshi dolls have come back into vogue, particularly among young women. Uso bullfinch dolls, originally from Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine in Fukuoka Prefecture, are the focus of the annual Usokae bullfinch exchange held at many Tenmangu shrines. Participants in this Shinto ceremony trade in last year’s bullfinch dolls, either swapping with other worshippers or getting a new one from the shrine. The exchange symbolizes trading the past year’s unlucky events for future good fortune.

1. Kokeshi (Various)

Yamagata and Miyagi are the two largest centers of production for kokeshi dolls. The Yamagata Hijiori style on the left is distinguished by its crescent eyes and outlined mouth. The Miyagi Naruko-style figure at right has a movable head that squeaks when it is turned.

2. Tanomo-bune (Hiroshima Pref.)

Originally made by craftsmen in the port town of Onomichi from wood left over after making family altars, these boats were given to a family when a male child was born. Children would pull them along when paying a visit to the local protective deity on the Tanomo no Sekku festival day.

3. Uzura-guruma (Miyazaki Pref.)

Quails used to be cherished as pets in Miyazaki, and these toys, made out of aralia wood, are talismans for long life and good fortune. There are two kinds: the one on the left is from Hokedake Yakushiji temple, and the one on the right is from Hisamine Kannon temple.

4. Kujira-bune (Wakayama Pref.)

In an area where whaling flourished for generations, fishermen made these miniature whaling boats as gifts for children. Brightly colored patterns were painted on whaling boats to help them stand out from one another on the high seas.

5. Ejiko (Yamagata Pref.)

The word ejiko refers to the straw baskets babies were left in to sleep while the parents worked in the fields. These dolls were chiefly made in the Tohoku region of Japan. In some, the upper part comes off to reveal a smaller doll inside.

Warehouses of fun: The interior of the Japan Toy Museum
Warehouses of fun: The interior of the Japan Toy Museum

6. Kigoma (Various)

The Kinoshita horse from Miyagi has a chrysanthemum design on its saddle; the Aomori Yawata horse on the right features dots and chiyogami repeated patterns. With Fukushima’s Miharu horse, these are known as the Three Horses of Japan.

7. Kujira-guruma (Kochi Pref.)

Kochi Prefecture owed its prosperity to whaling, as these carved wooden toys attest. The whales are depicted swimming in the ocean, tails bent upward dynamically. The flippers are made separately and inserted into the body.

8. Uso (Various)

These toys are offered at the Usokae, a Shinto ritual held at Tenmangu shrines across Japan. They are (from left to right) from Tokyo’s Kameido Tenjin, Oita’s Oimatsu Tenmangu and Fukuoka’s Dazaifu Tenmangu shrines.

9. Kiji-uma (Kumamoto Pref.)

Kiji-uma from Hitoyoshi — identifiable by the character for “big” written on the top of the head — are especially famous. Some say defeated Heike warriors who fled to this area began crafting the toys to make a living.

Chikako Shimizu contributed the text for this article. This is the final installment in a three-part series on Japanese folk toys.

Where to find folk toy treasures

Folk toy tea party: Nishiogi Itochi allows diners to sip milk tea while viewing displays of kokeshi dolls.
Folk toy tea party: Nishiogi Itochi allows diners to sip milk tea while viewing displays of kokeshi dolls.

Mori Folk Toy Museum

“I want to help pass on these precious folk toys to the next generation,” says Ichiro Morita, who created this museum in the garden of his own home. Viewing the vast collection of bullfinch dolls, pigeon whistles, Nakano dolls and others is as enjoyable as talking to the gentle and knowledgeable Morita himself.

Oguno 8616, Hinodemachi, Nishitama-gun, Tokyo 190-0181; 042-597-0556; Thu.-Sat., 9 a.m.-4 p.m., by phone or fax reservation only; adults ¥200

Japan Toy Museum

Six traditional warehouse-style buildings hold 90,000 Japanese and foreign toys and related materials.

Koderacho 671-3 Nakanino, Himeji, Hyogo 679-2143; 079-232-4388; 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.; closed Wed., except on holidays; adults ¥600; japan-toy-museum.org

Bingoya

This store’s five floors hold a wealth of folk crafts ranging from pottery and fabrics to bamboo goods and handmade washi paper, carefully sourced from all over Japan. Offerings include a variety of papier-mache figures, kokeshi dolls and other folk toys. Many foreign tourists visit, and written explanations in English are available.

Wakamatsucho 10-6, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0056; 03-3202-8778; 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; closed Mon., as well as the third Saturday and following Sunday in January to April, June, July, September and October; bingoya.tokyo

Nishiogi Itochi

The owner of this unique cafe, Chie Ito, offers milk tea and scones — which she came to love in England — along with an array of her favorite Japanese folk toys. Patrons can enjoy a relaxing teatime while viewing the displays of kokeshi and clay dolls, which are also for sale.

Nishiogikita 2-1-7, Suginami-ku, Tokyo 167-0042; 03-5303-5663; 12-7 p.m.; closed Mon., Tue. and irregularly; tea-kokeshi.jp

For more insight into Japan’s culture, arts and lifestyle, visit int.kateigaho.com.

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