Kokeshi are wooden, painted dolls originally from the Zao onsen area of Miyagi Prefecture, but spread to several other onsen towns in the area, and on to the rest of Japan around the Edo Period. Their faces have changed and modernized through time, and now you can find many forms and styles of these dolls sold all over the country. However the original style of head and body is still produced in Miyagi today.
There are 5 onsen towns in Miyagi generally considered as the main producers, each with a slightly different shape and style: Togatta (probably the original), Naruko, Yajiro, Sakunami, and Hijori. This postcard appears most like the Naruko style, which most commonly features bangs and 2 pigtails of hair on the head, as well as reds and yellows on the body. The yellow became popular from around the middle of the Taisho period.
You can visit the Japan Kokeshi Museum in Naruko Onsen, Miyagi Prefecture, to see craftsman making the dolls, try painting your own, and of course, buy the dolls themselves. There’s also an All-Japan Kokeshi contest, a Kokeshi Shrine, and a Kokeshi Festival as well. This year marks the 57th Contest, held in Shiroishi, Miyagi on May 3~5. The festival is February through mid-March at the aforementioned Kokeshi Museum.
And of course, these dolls in different styles can be bought all over Japan. When I was a child, I had a Naruko Kokeshi, and the head does indeed squeak!
Edit 2015.11.13: I drove by these giant kokeshi dolls in Sakunami Onsen and took some quick pictures even though I didn’t have time to stop at the actual onsen. What a nice welcome!
Postcards and dolls
Sakunami Onsen entrance