Visit the artisans who are preserving Gunma’s craft heritage and balancing tradition with innovation
Last updated: March 03, 2023
Gunma has a rich craft tradition, and among the many crafts practiced in Gunma, daruma and kokeshi are favorites with many visitors. Daruma symbolize perseverance and focus on a goal, while kokeshi have delighted children and adults for generations with their individual decorations and peaceful expressions. Meet the craftspeople who strive to preserve Gunma’s craft heritage, while making space for the next generations.
With its vibrant red color and auspicious crane and turtle symbols hidden in its painted face, the Takasaki daruma is known as the “Lucky Daruma.” In Takasaki, daruma making began over 200 years ago, modeled after Daruma Daishi (Bodhidharma), a legendary Indian monk who is credited with bringing Zen (Chan) Buddhism to China in the fifth or sixth century. It was said he meditated without rest for nine years, and over time, his arms and legs withered away, inspiring the rounded shape of the daruma.
Even if it is pushed over, a daruma returns to an upright position, embodying the spirit of perseverance. While the red daruma embodies good luck and good fortune, other colors focus on particular goals. The black daruma, for example, stands for prosperity in business; green for health and wellness, and orange for study and exam success. Some makers, like Imai Daruma NAYA, also craft contemporary designs for interior decor, like their black and white "Designer's Daruma."
At Daimonya in Takasaki, fourth-generation daruma maker Nakata Sumikazu and his daughter Nakata Chihiro preserve the traditions of Takasaki daruma, while keeping the craft relevant. Since he was a young boy, Sumikazu helped out his family at Daimonya. Today, he paints all of the expressions on the 70,000 daruma they produce per year; a skill that took years to master, until the paint brush felt like an extension of his own finger.
Over the years, the daruma has evolved slightly, but Sumikazu is fascinated with the Hyakunen Daruma, a version which existed a hundred years ago. He has recreated the original wooden form which was used to shape layers of papier mache, and revived the old crafting techniques as a personal project.
While Sumikazu sees it as his duty to preserve the authentic Takasaki daruma, he also believes that each craftsperson be free to use their imagination. Daimonya sells new styles, including seasonal designs. However, Sumikazu himself continues to focus his energy on making traditional Takasaki daruma, and teaching apprentices to carry on the tradition.
“There’s no guarantee that Daimonya will continue for the next fifty years,” says Sumikazu. “But since I’ve already trained three people who are now able to work independently, I know that the legacy of Takasaki daruma will continue.”
Nakata Chihiro, a fifth generation daruma artisan, shares the same reverence for Takasaki daruma, and is passionate about sharing daruma culture abroad. She sees creative daruma as an effective marketing tool, attracting new customers with contemporary designs like cherry-blossom themed daruma. She hopes that these customers will also come to appreciate the value of the traditional Takasaki daruma.
Experience the history and culture of Takasaki daruma by painting your own daruma, guided by an artisan at Daimonya. Learn how to paint the daruma’s symbolic eyebrows and whiskers, which embody good luck and longevity. After painting the face, a craftsperson from Daimonya will paint a kanji character of your choice on the stomach and back.
Kokeshi dolls originated in the Tohoku region in northeast Japan, and were first made as souvenirs for visitors to hot springs during the Edo period (1603–1868). The simple, cylindrical dolls are shaped using a wood lathe and are handpainted, often in vibrant colors. Traditional kokeshi from the Tohoku region are usually decorated with region-specific designs.
In contrast, kokeshi made in Gunma are often called sosaku (creative) kokeshi. These emphasize the individual artisan’s skills and style. According to second-generation kokeshi maker Okamoto Yuji, this opportunity for creativity is what makes the craft so fun.
Making a kokeshi begins with dense wood with a fine grain such as dogwood, which is ideal for turning on a lathe. Dogwood trees grow across Gunma, and when Okamoto Yuji, the second-generation owner of Usaburo Kokeshi was first introduced to the craft as a child, he started by peeling the bark from pieces of dogwood by hand for pocket money.
In Gunma, kokeshi artisans are free to come up with new concepts without the constraints of tradition. Annual competitions act as incubators for innovation and creativity. The one restriction is that kokeshi must be made using a lathe, making their basic shapes similar.
Usaburo Kokeshi’s creative approach has seen them working with companies including Sanrio and Lucasfilm to design and produce playful character kokeshi, from Hello Kitty to Yoda. Yuji says young people tend to enjoy collecting these items, while Europeans are drawn to kokeshi with “okappa,” the traditional hairstyle worn by little girls in Japan.
Yuji takes joy in seeing the imaginative ideas of kokeshi craftspeople come to life, finding it stimulating. He says, “Young people should make what’s suitable for their generation. I have a strong sense of traditional designs, so it’s hard for me to break out, but not so for young people.” Each of his children who work as artisans in the family business, have their own distinct style.
Besides sustainability and creativity, Okamoto Yuji values the sense of peace and calm that his kokeshi bring to their future owners. “While turning the wood, I look at the grain and color, thinking about where to paint the face,” he says. “I want to make kokeshi with calming expressions. Making each one is an enjoyable and soothing process, and I almost don’t want to let go when they’re finished!”
During a kokeshi painting workshop at Usaburo Kokeshi, you’ll select a carved kokeshi shape to use as a base, draw a rough sketch as an outline, and then paint your kokeshi. An artisan from Usaburo Kokeshi will add a lacquer coating to protect your design, and you can take your personalized kokeshi home on the same day.