Kyodo gangu are the traditional folk toys of Japan. These simple dolls and figurines made from clay, wood and paper were what parents used to give to children at playtime, but are now more coveted by collectors than children.
While the general form remains the same, the shape and appearance of each type of doll differs depending on when, where and by whom it was created. Each doll embodies a different wish, such as for the healthy growth of the child or for the safety and prosperity of the family.
While the cuteness of the kyodo gangu toys has garnered them a great amount of attention in recent years, these dolls are faced with decline as there’s a shortage of craftspeople with the skills to keep this art form alive. So when you see a toy that catches your eye, there is the possibility that you may never find another like it − snap it up fast. Here’s where to start your collection.
Get to know these cute toys
Kokeshi are dolls made in the Tohoku region in northeast Japan. There are about 10 styles, each with its own specific facial expression, hairstyle and body pattern. It is believed that kokeshi was first made by artisans who, in addition their main craft of wood homeware, also made toys for children.
Buy your kokeshi here.
Inu-hariko are papier-mâché dogs first made in the Edo Period as charms for childbirth and child-rearing. It is made by affixing many layers of paper to a frame made of clay or woven bamboo. Once the glue is dry, the frame is removed, leaving a lightweight character ready to lift any mood.
Buy your inu-hariko here.
This classic Japanese doll depicts a red Zen monk Bodhidharma seated in meditation. Don’t worry if your daruma looks incomplete - they are usually sold without the eyes drawn in; it's customary to draw in its left eye when you make a wish, and its right eye when your wish comes true.
Paint your own daruma at the atelier gallery Asakusa Experience.
Akabeko are papier-mâché cows and they pay homage to the legend of the red cows which came to the rescue when the constructions of Enzou-ji, a temple in Yanaizu in Fukushima prefecture, were at a difficult stage. Lightly touching the head of the bull causes it to nod.
You may have noticed that cats are everywhere in Japan. That’s because they are widely seen as a symbol of good luck and happiness, but if you really want to boost your fortunes, you need an octopus riding atop your moggy. The Sagara doll, which originated in the Yamagata prefecture in the late 20th century, offer just that.
Simple lanterns that resemble a goldfish, Kingyo Chochin are said to have been inspired by the Nebuta festival in Aomori prefecture and first made for children approximately 150 years ago. They are beloved as a symbol of summer in the city of Yanai in Yamaguchi prefecture, where the practice originated. Thousands of fantastic fishy lanterns decorate the town every August.
At first glance this unique toy from Kumamoto prefecture appears to be a simple cute tanuki doll, but is in fact a sort of early Transformer. The bamboo hat, head, body and stand can be disassembled and used as individual spinning tops.
Originating from Tokyo, Tondari Hanetari are mechanical dolls that jump and leap like cats on a hot tin roof. To perform the trick, a bamboo sticking out from the front of the toy is swung around to the back and attached with pine resin. As the seal weakens, the stick is detached, causing the doll to leap out of place with the force of a spring.
Where to shop for folk toys
The Beams Japan flagship in Shinjuku spreads out over a total of six floors. You'll find a varied collection of clothing, crafts and art, plus a gallery hosting an eclectic array of events and exhibitions.
Great for souvenir shopping, Bingoya offers high-quality traditional crafts made in Japan including pottery, fabric, lacquerware, glassware, dolls and folk art. They carry a comprehensive selection of indigo-dyed clothing and accessories as well.
Takumi specialises in folk crafts from Japan, Asia and Latin America. If it's a unique souvenir you're after, this should be your stop.
One of the trendiest department stores in Japan, the flagship Isetan Shinjuku is renowned for having its window displays created by leading artists.
This Marunouchi store stocks an extensive range of artisanal items, including the highly prized Hasami porcelain from Nagasaki. You'll also find Nakagawa Masashichi's signature Hanafukin tea towels, famed for their soft texture and high absorbency.
Fukushima prefecture's 'antenna shop' deals in the region's specialities – both edible and non-edible – including sake, snacks and traditional handicrafts. As is customary at a store like this, you'll also find a tourist information counter on the premises.
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