I've been reading 'Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan', by Lafcadio Hearn, which was written in the late 1800s, and came upon three sections in Chapter 11 that deal specifically with Japanese toys of that time period, and legends associated with them, which I found interesting and thought I'd share. Who knows, maybe his words will inspire you with an idea for a custom toy of your own.
Chapter 11, Sec. 9
Vast as the courts of the Oho-yashiro are, the crowd within them is now
so dense that one must move very slowly, for the whole population of
Kitzuki and its environs has been attracted here by the matsuri. All are
making their way very gently toward a little shrine built upon an island
in the middle of an artificial lake and approached by a narrow causeway.
This little shrine, which I see now for the first time (Kitzuki temple
being far too large a place to be all seen and known in a single visit),
is the Shrine of Tenjin. As the sound of a waterfall is the sound of the
clapping of hands before it, and myriads of nin, and bushels of handfuls
of rice, are being dropped into the enormous wooden chest there placed
to receive the offerings. Fortunately this crowd, like all Japanese
crowds, is so sympathetically yielding that it is possible to traverse
it slowly in any direction, and thus to see all there is to be seen.
After contributing my mite to the coffer of Tenjin, I devote my
attention to the wonderful display of toys in the outer counts.
At almost every temple festival in Japan there is a great sale of toys,
usually within the count itself--a miniature street of small booths
being temporarily erected for this charming commence. Every matsuri is a
children's holiday. No mother would think of attending a temple-festival
without buying her child a toy: even the poorest mother can afford it;
for the price of the toys sold in a temple court varies from one-fifth
of one sen  or Japanese cent, to three or four sen; toys worth so
much as five sen being rarely displayed at these little shops. But cheap
as they are, these frail playthings are full of beauty and
suggestiveness, and, to one who knows and loves Japan, infinitely more
interesting than the costliest inventions of a Parisian toy-
manufacturer. Many of them, however, would be utterly incomprehensible
to an English child. Suppose we peep at a few of them.
Here is a little wooden mallet, with a loose tiny ball fitted into a
socket at the end of the handle. This is for the baby to suck. On either
end of the head of the mallet is painted the mystic tomoye--that
Chinese symbol, resembling two huge commas so united as to make a
perfect circle, which you may have seen on the title-page of Mr.
Lowell's beautiful Soul of the Far East. To you, however, this little
wooden mallet would seem in all probability just a little wooden mallet
and nothing more. But to the Japanese child it is full of suggestions.
It is the mallet of the Great Deity of Kitzuki, Ohokuni-nushi-no-Kami--
vulgarly called Daikoku--the God of Wealth, who, by one stroke of his
hammer, gives fortune to his worshippers.
Perhaps this tiny drum, of a form never seen in the Occident (tsudzumi),
or this larger drum with a mitsudomoye, or triple-comma symbol, painted
on each end, might seem to you without religious signification; but both
are models of drums used in the Shinto and the Buddhist temples. This
queer tiny table is a miniature sambo: it is upon such a table that
offerings are presented to the gods. This curious cap is a model of the
cap of a Shinto priest. Here is a toy miya, or Shinto shrine, four
inches high. This bunch of tiny tin bells attached to a wooden handle
might seem to you something corresponding to our Occidental tin rattles;
but it is a model of the sacred suzu used by the virgin priestess in her
dance before the gods. This face of a smiling chubby girl, with two
spots upon her forehead-a mask of baked clay--is the traditional image
of Ame-no-uzume-no-mikoto, commonly called Otafuku, whose merry
laughter lured the Goddess of the Sun out of the cavern of darkness. And
here is a little Shinto priest in full hieratic garb: when this little
string between his feet is pulled, he claps his hands as if in prayer.
Hosts of other toys are here--mysterious to the uninitiated European,
but to the Japanese child full of delightful religious meaning. In these
faiths of the Far East there is little of sternness or grimness--the
Kami are but the spirits of the fathers of the people; the Buddhas and
the Bosatsu were men. Happily the missionaries have not succeeded as yet
in teaching the Japanese to make religion a dismal thing. These gods
smile for ever: if you find one who frowns, like Fudo, the frown seems
but half in earnest; it is only Emma, the Lord of Death, who somewhat
appals. Why religion should be considered too awful a subject for
children to amuse themselves decently with never occurs to the common
Japanese mind. So here we have images of the gods and saints for toys--
Tenjin, the Deity of Beautiful Writing--and Uzume, the laughter-loving
-and Fukusuke, like a happy schoolboy--and the Seven Divinities of
Good Luck, in a group--and Fukurojin, the God of Longevity, with head
so elongated that only by the aid of a ladder can his barber shave the
top of it--and Hotei, with a belly round and huge as a balloon--and
Ebisu, the Deity of Markets and of fishermen, with a tai-fish under his
arm--and Daruma, ancient disciple of Buddha, whose legs were worn off
by uninterrupted meditation.
Here likewise are many toys which a foreigner could scarcely guess the
meaning of, although they have no religious signification. Such is this
little badger, represented as drumming upon its own belly with both
forepaws. The badger is believed to be able to use its belly like a
drum, and is credited by popular superstition with various supernatural
powers. This toy illustrates a pretty fairy-tale about some hunter who
spared a badger's life and was rewarded by the creature with a wonderful
dinner and a musical performance. Here is a hare sitting on the end of
the handle of a wooden pestle which is set horizontally upon a pivot. By
pulling a little string, the pestle is made to rise and fall as if moved
by the hare. If you have been even a week in Japan you will recognise
the pestle as the pestle of a kometsuki, or rice-cleaner, who works it
by treading on the handle. But what is the hare? This hare is the Hare-
in-the-Moon, called Usagi-no-kometsuki: if you look up at the moon on a
clear night you can see him cleaning his rice.
Now let us see what we can discover in the way of cheap ingenuities.
Tombo, 'the Dragon-Fly.' Merely two bits of wood joined together in the
form of a T. The lower part is a little round stick, about as thick as a
match, but twice as long; the upper piece is flat, and streaked with
paint. Unless you are accustomed to look for secrets, you would scarcely
be able to notice that the flat piece is trimmed along two edges at a
particular angle. Twirl the lower piece rapidly between the palms of
both hands, and suddenly let it go. At once the strange toy rises
revolving in the air, and then sails away slowly to quite a distance,
performing extraordinary gyrations, and imitating exactly--to the eye
at least--the hovering motion of a dragon-fly. Those little streaks of
paint you noticed upon the top-piece now reveal their purpose; as the
tombo darts hither and thither, even the tints appear to be those of a
real dragon-fly; and even the sound of the flitting toy imitates the
dragon-fly's hum. The principle of this pretty invention is much like
that of the boomerang; and an expert can make his tombo, after flying
across a large room, return into his hand. All the tombo sold, however,
are not as good as this one; we have been lucky. Price, one-tenth of one
Here is a toy which looks like a bow of bamboo strung with wire. The
wire, however, is twisted into a corkscrew spiral. On this spiral a pair
of tiny birds are suspended by a metal loop. When the bow is held
perpendicularly with the birds at the upper end of the string, they
descend whirling by their own weight, as if circling round one another;
and the twittering of two birds is imitated by the sharp grating of the
metal loop upon the spiral wire. One bird flies head upward, and the
other tail upward. As soon as they have reached the bottom, reverse the
bow, and they will recommence their wheeling flight. Price, two cents--
because the wire is dear.
O-Saru, the 'Honourable Monkey.'  A little cotton monkey, with a blue
head and scarlet body, hugging a bamboo rod. Under him is a bamboo
spring; and when you press it, he runs up to the top of the rod. Price,
one-eighth of one cent.
O-Saru. Another Honourable Monkey. This one is somewhat more complex in
his movements, and costs a cent. He runs up a string, hand over hand,
when you pull his tail.
Tori-Kago. A tiny gilded cage, with a bird in it, and plum flowers.
Press the edges of the bottom of the cage, and a minuscule wind-
instrument imitates the chirping of the bird. Price, one cent.
Karuwazashi, the Acrobat. A very loose-jointed wooden boy clinging with
both hands to a string stretched between two bamboo sticks, which are
curiously rigged together in the shape of an open pair of scissors.
Press the ends of the sticks at the bottom; and the acrobat tosses his
legs over the string, seats himself upon it, and finally turns a
somersault. Price, one-sixth of one cent.
Kobiki, the Sawyer. A figure of a Japanese workman, wearing only a
fundoshi about his loins, and standing on a plank, with a long saw in
his hands. If you pull a string below his feet, he will go to work in
good earnest, sawing the plank. Notice that he pulls the saw towards
him, like a true Japanese, instead of pushing it from him, as our own
carpenters do. Price, one-tenth of one cent.
Chie-no-ita, the 'Intelligent Boards,' or better, perhaps, 'The Planks
of Intelligence.' A sort of chain composed of about a dozen flat square
pieces of white wood, linked together by ribbons. Hold the thing
perpendicularly by one end-piece; then turn the piece at right angles to
the chain; and immediately all the other pieces tumble over each other
in the most marvellous way without unlinking. Even an adult can amuse
himself for half an hour with this: it is a perfect trompe-l'oeil in
mechanical adjustment. Price, one cent.
Kitsune-Tanuki. A funny flat paper mask with closed eyes. If you pull a
pasteboard slip behind it, it will open its eyes and put out a tongue of
surprising length. Price, one-sixth of one cent.
Chin. A little white dog, with a collar round its neck. It is in the
attitude of barking. From a Buddhist point of view, I should think this
toy somewhat immoral. For when you slap the dog's head, it utters a
sharp yelp, as of pain. Price, one sen and five rin. Rather dear.
Fuki-agari-koboshi, the Wrestler Invincible. This is still dearer; for
it is made of porcelain, and very nicely coloured The wrestler squats
upon his hams. Push him down in any direction, he always returns of his
own accord to an erect position. Price, two sen.
Oroga-Heika-Kodomo, the Child Reverencing His Majesty the Emperor. A
Japanese schoolboy with an accordion in his hands, singing and playing
the national anthem, or Kimiga. There is a little wind-bellows at the
bottom of the toy; and when you operate it, the boy's arms move as if
playing the instrument, and a shrill small voice is heard. Price, one
cent and a half.
Jishaku. This, like the preceding, is quite a modern toy. A small wooden
box containing a magnet and a tiny top made of a red wooden button with
a steel nail driven through it. Set the top spinning with a twirl of the
fingers; then hold the magnet over the nail, and the top will leap up to
the magnet and there continue to spin, suspended in air. Price, one
It would require at least a week to examine them all. Here is a model
spinning-wheel, absolutely perfect, for one-fifth of one cent. Here are
little clay tortoises which swim about when you put them into water--
one rin for two. Here is a box of toy-soldiers--samurai in full armour
--nine rin only. Here is a Kaze-Kuruma, or wind-wheel--a wooden whistle
with a paper wheel mounted before the orifice by which the breath is
expelled, so that the wheel turns furiously when the whistle is blown--
three rin. Here is an Ogi, a sort of tiny quadruple fan sliding in a
sheath. When expanded it takes the shape of a beautiful flower--one
The most charming of all these things to me, however, is a tiny doll--
O-Hina-San (Honourable Miss Hina)--or beppin ('beautiful woman'). The
body is a phantom, only--a flat stick covered with a paper kimono--but
the head is really a work of art. A pretty oval face with softly
shadowed oblique eyes--looking shyly downward--and a wonderful maiden
coiffure, in which the hair is arranged in bands and volutes and
ellipses and convolutions and foliole curlings most beautiful and
extraordinary. In some respects this toy is a costume model, for it
imitates exactly the real coiffure of Japanese maidens and brides. But
the expression of the face of the beppin is, I think, the great
attraction of the toy; there is a shy, plaintive sweetness about it
impossible to describe, but deliciously suggestive of a real Japanese
type of girl-beauty. Yet the whole thing is made out of a little
crumpled paper, coloured with a few dashes of the brush by an expert
hand. There are no two O-Hina-San exactly alike out of millions; and
when you have become familiar by long residence with Japanese types, any
such doll will recall to you some pretty face that you have seen. These
are for little girls. Price, five rin.
Chapter 11, Sec. 10
Here let me tell you something you certainly never heard of before in
relation to Japanese dolls--not the tiny O-Hina-San I was just speaking
about, but the beautiful life-sized dolls representing children of two
or three years old; real toy-babes which, although far more cheaply and
simply constructed than our finer kinds of Western dolls, become, under
the handling of a Japanese girl, infinitely more interesting. Such dolls
are well dressed, and look so life-like--little slanting eyes, shaven
pates, smiles, and all!--that as seen from a short distance the best
eyes might be deceived by them. Therefore in those stock photographs of
Japanese life, of which so many thousands are sold in the open ports,
the conventional baby on the mother's back is most successfully
represented by a doll. Even the camera does not betray the substitution.
And if you see such a doll, though held quite close to you, being made
by a Japanese mother to reach out his hands, to move its little bare
feet, and to turn its head, you would be almost afraid to venture a
heavy wager that it was only a doll. Even after having closely examined
the thing, you would still, I fancy, feel a little nervous at being left
alone with it, so perfect the delusion of that expert handling.
Now there is a belief that some dolls do actually become alive.
Formerly the belief was less rare than it is now. Certain dolls were
spoken of with a reverence worthy of the Kami, and their owners were
envied folk. Such a doll was treated like a real son or daughter: it was
regularly served with food; it had a bed, and plenty of nice clothes,
and a name. If in the semblance of a girl, it was O-Toku-San; if in that
of a boy, Tokutaro-San. It was thought that the doll would become angry
and cry if neglected, and that any ill-treatment of it would bring ill-
fortune to the house. And, moreover, it was believed to possess
supernatural powers of a very high order.
In the family of one Sengoku, a samurai of Matsue, there was a Tokutaro-
San which had a local reputation scarcely inferior to that of Kishibojin
--she to whom Japanese wives pray for offspring. And childless couples
used to borrow that doll, and keep it for a time--ministering unto it--
and furnish it with new clothes before gratefully returning it to its
owners. And all who did so, I am assured, became parents, according to
their heart's desire. 'Sengoku's doll had a soul.' There is even a
legend that once, when the house caught fire, the TokutarO-San ran out
safely into the garden of its own accord!
The idea about such a doll seems to be this: The new doll is only a
doll. But a doll which is preserved for a great many years in one
family,  and is loved and played with by generations of children,
gradually acquires a soul. I asked a charming Japanese girl: 'How can a
'Why,' she answered, 'if you love it enough, it will live!'
What is this but Renan's thought of a deity in process of evolution,
uttered by the heart of a child?
Chapter 11, Sec. 11
But even the most beloved dolls are worn out at last, or get broken in
the course of centuries. And when a doll must be considered quite dead,
its remains are still entitled to respect. Never is the corpse of a doll
irreverently thrown away. Neither is it burned or cast into pure running
water, as all sacred objects of the miya must be when they have ceased
to be serviceable. And it is not buried. You could not possibly imagine
what is done with it.
It is dedicated to the God Kojin, --a somewhat mysterious divinity,
half-Buddhist, half-Shinto. The ancient Buddhist images of Kojin
represented a deity with many arms;--the Shinto Kojin of Izumo has, I
believe, no artistic representation whatever. But in almost every
Shinto, and also in many Buddhist, temple grounds, is planted the tree
called enoki  which is sacred to him, and in which he is supposed by
the peasantry to dwell; for they pray before the enoki always to Kojin.
And there is usually a small shrine placed before the tree, and a little
torii also. Now you may often see laid upon such a shrine of Kojin, or
at the foot of his sacred tree, or in a hollow thereof--if there be any
hollow--pathetic remains of dolls. But a doll is seldom given to Kojin
during the lifetime of its possessor. When you see one thus exposed, you
may be almost certain that it was found among the effects of some poor
dead woman--the innocent memento of her girlhood, perhaps even also of
the girlhood of her mother and of her mother's mother.
Notes for Chapter Eleven
 There are ten rin to one sen, and ten mon to one rin, on one hundred
to one sen. The majority of the cheap toys sold at the matsuri cost from
two to nine rin. The rin is a circular copper coin with a square hole in
the middle for stringing purposes.
 Why the monkey is so respectfully mentioned in polite speech, I do
not exactly know; but I think that the symbolical relation of the
monkey, both to Buddhism and to Shinto, may perhaps account for the use
of the prefix 'O' (honourable) before its name.
 As many fine dolls really are. The superior class of O-Hina-San, such
as figure in the beautiful displays of the O-Hina-no-Matsuri at rich
homes, are heirlooms. Dolls are not given to children to break; and
Japanese children seldom break them. I saw at a Doll's Festival in the
house of the Governor of Izumo, dolls one hundred years old-charming
figurines in ancient court costume.
 Not to be confounded with Koshin, the God of Roads.
 Celtis Wilidenowiana. Sometimes, but rarely, a pine or other tree is
substituted for the enoki.