Monday, October 16, 2006

Japan - Souvenir Shopping in Kyoto

After seeing all those amazing temples and watching all those beautiful traditional arts being performed by geisha and maiko, we couldn't leave Kyoto without doing some serious souvenir shopping. Kyoto is still known for being the home of various forms of Japanese handcrafts, including the famous "Kyoto Dolls" - large, wood and porcelain dolls decked out in full kimono as detailed as the real thing.

Some traditional handcrafts can be picked up on the roads to various temples, which as I mentioned in an earlier post are lined with souvenir stands. But you have to be careful here - many of the items sold in these shops are available nearly everywhere in Kyoto (and even in Tokyo) for much lower prices. Most souvenirs sold in these shops are machine-manufactured, not hand-made, and while there's nothing wrong with that, there's no reason you need to pick them up at an inflated price near a temple in Kyoto. It's actually probably a good idea to go to a mall before visiting any temples (there's a big one right underneath Kyoto Station, for example) and see what they have for sale - that way you'll know what you can skip over when you visit one of the temple souvenir shops. You also need to be particularly careful with Kyoto dolls - they come in a large array of sizes and quality ranges, and the one you find at a souvenir stand may sound cheap at $30, but may still not be a good value.

A good idea is to just buy all your stuff at the Kyoto Handicraft Center. This is truly a one-stop shop for any Kyoto souvenirs you might want. It's a five-story building housing several individual shops each devoted to some form of traditional Kyoto product. Not everything there is hand-made as the name might imply, but much of what you'll find is. There are also a couple areas in the building selling cheap crap like any other souvenir store, so you still need to be picky, but you can find some real authentic stuff and some good deals if you just walk around a bit. Everything from katana to kimono to wood block prints to kokeshi and Kyoto dolls are on sale here.

Our favorite floor in the building had to be the Nakayama Doll Manufacturing Company, which despite its name sells more than just dolls. Their main store is near Kyoto Station, but the saleswoman explained to us that the main store does only carry dolls, and most of them are extremely expensive. The handicraft center store stocks dolls that range from $30-$500, some made in-house and some from other manufacturers, as well as other goods such as lacquer work (decorative trays, tea sets, music boxes and the like), vases, and other little knick-knacks. You'll know this company is the real deal when you see that they've been in business for 500 years. (Yeah, this company has been making dolls for more than twice as long as the United States has existed.) We ended up spending nearly $500 at this shop, buying ourselves a Kyoto doll with a wood and glass case, a kokeshi doll, a lacquer candy dish and several Christmas presents that need to remain secret for obvious reasons.

Here's the Nakayama Doll Manufacturing Company brochure (multi-page PDF):

They told us specifically not to pay any attention to that brochure, because most of what's in there is no longer sold by the company. The nature of their business is that pretty much everything is a limited run, so they have a lot of dolls similar to what's in here, but not many that are exactly the same.

If you're interested in Kyoto and kokeshi dolls (and even as a guy, I have to admit they can be really beautiful), I'll relay a couple tips that the saleswoman at the shop gave to us - and she obviously knew what she was talking about. We're talking 500 years of knowledge passed down through the generations, and she was no spring chicken herself!

First, traditional Kyoto dolls are made of wood with porcelain heads. But you really can't have one of these outside of Japan unless you keep it in a climate-controlled environment. Hand-made traditional dolls (as this company makes) use a porcelain mixture tailored for the high Kyoto humidity, and even there, she showed us how she had to keep a glass of water near the dolls to make sure they didn't develop cracks. She told us it was almost inevitable that one of their dolls brought to America would eventually crack - they had seen it many times before.

That's an original doll hand-made by this company. You can see that the price is around $500.

We ended up settling on a high-quality, large plastic doll of a dancing geisha (not all Kyoto dolls are geisha, but we wanted one that was) and a glass case to go with it.

The look of these is basically indistinguishable from porcelain, with the same finish. Plastic dolls are also less expensive than wood and porcelain, meaning you can get a larger one with a more detailed kimono for the same or lesser price. (It's the kimono that you're really paying for - the doll itself is secondary.) And they won't crack, regardless of the environment. It's plastic that you see in most souvenir shops in the $30 range, though these are small and not as detailed as the large doll we got. The cases that come with them are also generally cheap plastic imitating glass and wood. This company sells the smaller dolls too, though, if you're looking to save money.

As for kokeshi dolls, there are two types: "traditional" and "creative". Most of what you see on the market today are "creative" kokeshi dolls, meaning they're intended more as pieces of art than the childs' toys that kokeshi dolls originally were. ("Traditional" kokeshi dolls are, in my opinion, pretty ugly.) These dolls are mass-produced, though still finished by hand and made of wood - and there are several famous designers working today. We ended up selecting one by Kunio Miyagawa, an award-winning doll maker who has been recognized as a master by the Japanese government.

Given all there is to see and do in Kyoto, it's really worthwhile to just spend half a day doing all your souvenir shopping in this building and devoting the rest of your time to sightseeing. It might still be worth looking into the souvenir stands along the temple paths (we did see at least one really nice doll store near Kiyomizu), but just make sure you're not overpaying for cheap junk if you do.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    I know this is an older entry, but I came across it in a Google search while looking up info on my recent purchase.
    I just got back from Japan a week ago. I visited the Kyoto Handicraft Center and bought a doll.
    I just wanted to thank you for this incredibly informative entry. You gave me so much more info on my doll that I had not known, including the correct name of the doll making company. I was with a tour group and only had one hour to spend in the center and spent nearly all of it choosing and buying my doll. Thank you for filling in all the holes I had in my knowledge about her.



About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP