Teach English in Japan WELL: Student Comprehension

Each Teach English in Japan WELL post offers up a practical tip for honing your teaching skills and work habits that can pay big dividends with students at conversation schools.

‘Do you Understand?’

Are you thinking about teaching in Japan? Please say no right now as I ask you if you’re ever going to ask a student the question above.  And resolve not to ask it again if you’ve already gotten in the habit of relying on it.

Asking your students if they understand can let them know that you’re focused on them and their individual needs, and aren’t just blowing through a lesson plan without concern for how it’s going over.  It can also give you immediate feedback, which is potentially very worthwhile.

That’s why lots of teachers, especially inexperienced ones who have recently arrived in Japan, utter this well meaning but in fact rather meaningless and often counterproductive query so often.

Here’s why it’s a crutch and can get in the way of getting a real handle on how well your students are grasping what’s going on in your lessons.

When we ask this question, we do it with certain assumptions. Two main ones are that the student will answer frankly, and even more fundamentally, that they’ll be able to accurately assess in the moment whether they understand or not.  

Let’s look at these and and factors at work that make it likely that one or both of them in a given instance might stand in the way of getting to the gist of things.

When asked as a group or individually, students are inclined to say that they understand because they don’t want to look ‘dumb.’  There’s also the tendency, especially in parts of Asia, to focus on not wanting to inconvenience others, even if it’s at one’s own expense. 

In this light it becomes much more palatable to say a simple ‘yes’ than to say no and disrupt the flow of the lesson,  perhaps compelling the teacher to spend more time on something that others have apparently already grasped.

It’s also easy for learners to infer that the right answer is a simple ‘yes’ because to say otherwise is to on some level call the teacher’s ability into question in front of others. 

This can be true anywhere, but it can be especially prevalent in countries like Japan and others in Asia where fear of losing face and respect for authority are so woven into the fabric of social interactions.

Shifting focus for a moment, is it possible that you in fact might have asked this question at least once assuming/hoping that you’d get a quick ‘yes’ and be able to get on with the lesson or wrap it up and get to your next class?  Some teachers certainly come to habitually do this, without specifically deciding to. 

Then there’s the bigger and intriguing issue of the very nature of understanding.  To understand something can mean different things to different people, because there are so many levels to this thing called ‘understanding.’ 

It’s quite possible for someone to have a certain intellectual understanding of something as a linguistic construct and yet not be able to put it to practical use in conversation, for example.

A resourceful teacher knows this and has the tools at their disposal to get the answer without asking the question by creating opportunities for students to use the target language in natural contexts. This illustrates to the teacher and the learner  just how well they’ve mastered the material and the extent to which they can manipulate it.

Give the students a chance to show you rather than tell you what they understand and what they don’t. 

Conscientious teachers who take this loaded question out of their repertoire will be compelled to examine and hone other, more meaningful tools they have at their disposal in order to get a handle on what the students ‘get’ and what they don’t.

How do you check your students’ understanding? It’s a question well worth exploring!

Japanese Cat Fabric Furoshiki Cloths

Japan is crazy about its cats, so it will come as no surprise that cat fabric can be found is a wide array of cute designs.

There are cat cafes, various ‘cat islands’ with large numbers of ‘neko’ as they are known in Japanese. And one cat named Tama was even elevated to the position of station master at a Wakayama Prefecture train station, where she attracted thousands of fans and lots of merchandise sales.

Tama is also the name of the cat featured on a series of twelve furoshiki made by a Kyoto company. But this is just coincidence, as Tama is among the most popular and well known names for cats in Japan.

Tama also happens to mean ‘ball’ in Japanese, but the name doesn’t carry that meaning-it’s simply made up of sounds that are pleasing to the ear and have come to have an endearing ring to them.

The cotton fabric pictured below is from the Tama the cat furoshiki series and is one of my favorites because it includes various aspects of the culture that I know well from many winter days spent indoors in old, drafty houses without central heating.

This Tama is a native breed called a Japanese Bobtail. They come in various colors, but the calico(mi-ke) variety is the most well known abroad and also has wide popularity in Japan. As such, it’s a good bet that if you see cat fabric that comes from Japan, it could well feature this beloved breed.

Though Tama is snoozing in this scene, as Japanese Bobtails are naturally active and playful, she can be seen out and about among some vivid seasonal scenery in the other designs in the series. The Tama furoshiki featuring her out for a stroll under cherry blossoms shows her in fine, active form.

But while she’s dozing in the design below, you really can’t blame her. ‘Kotatsu’ low tables with heating elements and blankets to retain the heat like the one depicted on the fabric cloth below are indeed magnets for not only cats but also their owners!

And the ‘mikan’ mandarin oranges in the bowl are also fixtures of the season. It’s a good thing they’re so easy to peel, because a little time spent with your legs under a table like this will make anything that takes more than a modicum of effort seem like its just not worth the bother!

japanese cat fabricDepictions of cats in Japanese art have a long history, including the work of noted masters of ‘Ukiyo-e’ woodblock prints.

Paramount among them is Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who created numerous works featuring cats in the 19th century. His inspiration was never far away-it’s said that his studio was full of his feline muses!

Recently, in recognition of this, another Japanese furoshiki cloth maker has produced cat fabric that is sure to please cat lovers in and outside of Japan. It incorporates a multitude of cats in fanciful poses taken from his works.

Have a look below and you’ll be hard pressed not to get a sense of just how devoted he was to his models! Click on either of the photos to see it on amazon.

kuniyoshi catsWhether you find it as furoshiki squares as above or as yardage or in another form, Japanese cat fabric has a spirit and a flair all its own.

Look carefully and you’ll see that like Japanese textiles in general, many interesting aspects of this fascinating culture are also illuminated, and the longer you look, the more you’ll find to enjoy!

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Originally posted 2017-04-11 18:00:33.

Black Crested Formal Kimono Dyeing in Nagoya

Before I read an English version in the Japan Times this week of an article that originally ran in the Chunichi Shinbun newspaper, I had admittedly begun to take black crested formal kimono for granted.  As elegant as they are, I’ve seen hundreds of used kimono like this at Kyoto’s famed monthly markets at Toji Temple and Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. The markets are affectionately referred to by locals as Kobosan and Tenjinsan and are held on the 21st and 25th of every month respectively.

I’ve bought many of these formal black kimono over the years for resale, and the prices are always very reasonable because when Japanese people do buy vintage kimono for wear or projects these days, this type is of relatively limited use. As formal kimono they include family crests, and it’s always interesting to look at a crest to see if it’s an often seen one or not.  There are hundreds of crests, with many that look quite similar with small variations.  Some crests are more common in certain parts of Japan, so there is a geographical component to them as well. I’ve browsed lots of reference books on kamon as the crests are known in Japanese. My favorite is the well worn one on my bookshelf now, Family Crests of Japan.

Other than the crests, well, black is elegant, but black’s black, or so I’ve always thought. That’s what was so enlightening about the story about a Nagoya dye company and the two brothers who are striving to adapt to a changing marketplace.  It turns out that traditionally made black crested kimono have an especially deep tone which includes just a bit of blue and red. They are shokunin-true craftsmen!

 

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Living as I do in Nishijin, traditionally Kyoto’s weaving center, I’m well acquainted with the challenges that traditional kimono and obi makers face, and I’ve seen numerous attempts at changing their product lines to combat sagging sales as fewer and fewer Japanese wear kimono.  I’ve even seen dog wear made of silk brocade of the type traditionally associated with fine obi.

Nagoya’s Nakamura brothers are betting that their dyeing and designing skills will make such new products such as t-shirts and stoles appealing to a new generation. Other companies, including at least one in Kyoto, specialize in dyeing their clients’ old clothes black.  Which seems like another great way to put traditional skills to use, and also to give used clothing a new lease on life.

I didn’t know that Nagoya has long been a center of kuro-montsuki black crested kimono dyeing. But thanks to this article, I looked and in no time ran across an informative English video about another Nagoya dyeing company! This one is run by the Takeda family.  Mr. Takeda is seen below dyeing various kimono, and the focus shifts to black dyeing and family crests just after the five-minute mark.

Originally posted 2017-03-22 15:14:57.

Shinmei-ichi Festival: Home of the Largest Daruma Doll in Japan?

I’ve written quite a few articles about daruma dolls, and in my research I found a 2004 column by Amy Chavez on the Japan Times website that chronicles with her usual flair, her quest to buy a daruma doll at the Shinmei-ichi Daruma Doll Festival in Mihara.
I hadn’t heard of the festival before, and it sounds like a good excuse to get to know that beautiful area on the Seto Inland Sea in Hiroshima Prefecture better. As the festival has just come and gone for another year though, I’ll have to wait a while before the chance comes around again!

I also learned that Shinmei is another name for the sun goddess Amaterasu, a major deity in the shinto faith.

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If you happen to be in Japan some future February, it seems like a fun way to sample local cuisine as well as see lots of daruma dolls!  It’s been held for over 400 years, so it seems safe to assume that it will continue to be a festive February option.
Hundreds of street stalls offer a variety of temptations.  And then there are the daruma dolls. A giant daruma doll is on display and proudly bears the kanji characters 日本一(Nihon Ichi) to signify that it’s the biggest daruma doll in Japan. Check the short video below to see what it you can expect if you go.

At 30 seconds into the clip you’ll see a row of daruma dolls lined up for sale according to size and the camera pans from big to small. In case you’re curious, here are the prices for the largest three:  15 was going for ¥20000($175USD), 14 for ¥15000($132USD) and 13 for ¥10000($89). I don’t know if I’d be willing to part with mine after a year at those prices!

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Originally posted 2017-03-19 15:01:12.

The Bushido Code Kanji Quiz-Test Your Knowledge!

How familiar are you with the kanji that represent the bushido code, the principles that dictated the samurai way of life? Take this quickie quiz and find out!

Learning about the bushido virtues by way of translations in your native language is a natural first step. This is as far as many folks choose to go.

With just a bit of concentrated effort, you can then memorize the Japanese name of each precept.

But don’t stop there!

You might well have already come across at least some of the kanji characters that stand for these precepts.

But if you’re not a fairly serious student of the Japanese language, you might gloss over these kanji, assuming that they’re beyond your reach if you’re more interested in bushido than in the language itself.

Don’t be bowed!

Learning to associate each kanji or pair of kanji with the corresponding samurai code virtue is a simple and straightforward and rewarding task.

Learning to actually write the kanji as well can be very rewarding of course, but that does take appreciably more effort. The good news is that it’s not at all necessary to go that far if you want to forge a relationship with the characters.

Being able to simply match the bushido kanji with their Japanese names can be supremely satisfying and engaging in its own right.

And that’s where this simple bushido code kanji quiz comes in.

I hope it makes the learning process even more productive by giving you a clear sense of where you are at this point in a fun and engaging way that makes it easy to measure your progress and to motivate yourself to keep it up!

The kanji shown here are based on hand written calligraphy by Hiro, a good friend of mine here in Kyoto who’s also an accomplished brush artist in the traditional style.

These works are also featured in my calligraphy shop gallery, where you can review the kanji, Japanese names and English translations of the eight virtues of bushido before you take the quiz.

Or………just wing it and dive into the quiz!!

Get a baseline idea of how much you’ve already absorbed already-you might surprise yourself. Then come back after a short session of focused review and give it another go.

A passing score is 75%(6 out of 8 questions correct). Each question includes the Japanese name of a precept as well as common English equivalents. Each question has just one correct answer.

You can change answers at any point before you finish the quiz. After you’re done, in addition to viewing your score at the top, you can scroll down to see what you got right and what you missed, with those answers marked green and red respectively. When you miss a question, the correct answer will also be shown in green, for future reference.

I join Hiro in hoping that his art and the kanji characters and principles expressed in it will bring the spirit of bushido and Japan closer to you.

And we thank you for sharing our humble bushido code kanji quiz with friends who follow the way of the warrior.

Let The Quiz Begin!

Originally posted 2020-04-05 05:15:50.

The Making of a Daruma Doll

What is a daruma doll made out of?  Ask me and I’ll say something about papier mache, which sounds so much better in its original French than the literal English translation of chewed paper!
Beyond that I really had never seen anyone make one.  I was curious to know more about the process involved in making daruma, and I’ve also been wanting to get some Japanese language practice watching Japanese videos on youtube.

How to Make a Daruma Doll: An Inspiring Video Showing Traditional Methods

In researching about how to make a daruma doll, I came across a very well done short video produced by a Japanese company in Japanese. It’s one of many interesting installments in a series they’re chosen an English name for, ‘The Making.’

The episodes are both entertaining and educational and show how various things are made. This episode features daruma dolls and is 14 minutes long.  It uses Japanese subtitles to illuminate the steps shown without any spoken words. The only audio is a pleasant soundtrack.  So it happens to be very accessible even if you speak no Japanese at all.

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The first 3 1/2 minutes of the video shows how to make a daruma doll by hand, and the video was shot at Shorinzan temple in Gunma Prefecture, also known as ‘daruma-ji.’

The temple was a natural location for this video because it’s considered the birthplace of the Takasaki daruma doll. These are the most famed daruma dolls in Japan and the local city of Takasaki still is a major producer, accounting for about 80% of Japan’s daruma dolls! The red daruma doll below is an example of the work of Taksaki City’s craftsmen.

You’ll notice that a key component of the handmade method in this video is a daruma to use as a form on which to base the shape of the new doll.  So if you don’t already have a daruma doll to use in this way, it’s not practical for the beginner who wants to make their own daruma doll.  Still, it’s quite interesting and shows quite clearly how daruma dolls have been made over the centuries, before more mechanized methods came into use.

At the 3 1/2 minute mark the focus shifts to more modern methods of mass production, and this takes up the bulk of the show.  Notice that the facial features are still painted by hand, even with the modern approach!  One of my favorites parts was watching the craftsman so deftly adding the characteristic facial hair to the dolls!

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Originally posted 2017-03-16 15:01:50.

Daruma Dolls: Kanji and Color Meanings

Just as there’s no longer just one flavor of pasta sauce on supermarket shelves(Prego makes over 40 now!) daruma dolls also come in a variety of colors these days, to suit different tastes.

Here’s a rundown of the meaning behind many of the most common daruma doll colors, and an explanation of what those kanji characters so often seen on daruma dolls mean as well!

Red Daruma Dolls

Red is traditionally the color most associated with these dolls, and I’d bet that it’s still the most popular one for dolls sold in Japan.  Red is an auspicious color that some believe has the power to ward off evil spirits, disaster and illness.

The traditional red daruma is said to be modeled on Buddhist priest robes. Shinto too seems to venerate this color, as torii shrine gates through which parishioners pass are either red or vermilion.

When I was reading in Japanese on the history of daruma dolls, I learned that their origin is in China. This comes as no surprise, as so many aspects of Japanese culture have their roots in the Middle Kingdom.

But I was particularly interested to find that when they were introduced to Japan and for some time thereafter they were yellow, as they were in China! This certainly sounds plausible, as it’s natural for adaptations to be made when something is introduced to a new culture, and it could be said that Japan has a particular flair for that.

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Red is a celebratory color in Japan and carries with it numerous positive connotations. When people turn 60 in Japan, they celebrate their ‘kanreki’ by donning a jaunty red vest and cap to mark the occasion, which is seen as a sort of rebirth and return to the beginning of the life cycle. Red also has strong associations with victory, which is why political candidates choose red daruma when they’re running for office.

I’m partial to red daruma, so I bought the small one pictured below the other day when we went to a Kyoto temple known for daruma dolls that’s called Daruma-dera. It has a hole drilled in the bottom with an ‘omikuji’ fortune paper inside, and it’s sitting on my table watching me at this moment!

daruma doll

Red daruma dolls invite good fortune in the most general sense, so if you like red and want to go the traditional route, it’s always a good choice.  Mine has eyes that are already painted and a splash of festive hues in a floral pattern that gives it a cheery look.

If you don’t live in Japan and are thinking about getting a daruma doll for yourself or as a gift, a good place to start to get an idea of what’s available is amazon.  Click here to go there and see their selection.

Other Colors and Their Meanings

If you gravitate toward another color or have a specific goal in mind and want to put a finer point on things, there are daruma dolls of various hues that will be happy to call your house their home.

Sometimes they’re sold in sets of five different colors, each with a specific power. Such sets are called goshiki daruma. The word goshiki literally means ‘five colors.’

With the recent proliferation of colors though, some online sellers have created sets of ten dolls, each with it’s own distinct look and presumed powers.

This sort of set can be put to especially good use if you’re looking for small Japanese gifts for a good number of friends who are into Japanese culture or who would simply appreciate something unique and fun.

You can find the set of ten petite mini daruma dolls below on amazon by clicking on the photo.

Some popular daruma doll colors and their meanings are:

Purple-health and longevity. Purple is a regal color that is associated with the imperial line, and it’s connected with such qualities as character and integrity.

Yellow-as with gold, there’s an expected association with financial good fortune as well as a more general connection to good fortune.

Gold-wealth and prosperity. The obvious choice of color when career advancement and economic gain are in sharp focus. It’s a natural for a business environment, but it’s also a good fit at home, where a gold daruma doll can add brightness to your decor and motivate you to be active and to harness the energy to do what needs doing.

White-the color of choice for students studying for rigorous school entrance exams that are such a common and stressful rite of passage in Japan.  More generally white is associated with goal attainment.  White also stands for purity, not only in terms of experience, but also in purpose.  So a simple white daruma, perhaps with less gold accents than the one pictured, would be especially apropos for someone who’s practicing a martial art such as karate, judo or kendo.  A white daruma can inspire those who are interested in bushido, the code of honor of the samurai, for similar reasons. White emphasizes the the way, the path, rather than the result in this context. So, while white daruma dolls and goal setting go together, they also remind us to pay attention to the process.


Black-success in business ventures. A good color for entrepreneurs. Just like in English(in the black), the Japanese language refers to black for success in business(kuro ji), and so a black daruma doll will invite such business fortune.  And because it also represents power and strength, black can also promote stability in terms of a business’s money flow. So a black daruma would be a great gift for someone who’s starting a new business venture.


Blue-success in school and the development of the intellect. Blue is also a calming color and so a blue daruma doll can be a good addition to your home or work space.  It can promote a sense of relaxation and serenity.

Silver-promotes self-awareness and self-development. Expectant mothers also sometimes choose silver because it’s said that it makes an easy delivery more likely.


Green-physical health. Also the development of talent and skill. This ties into the connection between the color green and plants budding, and calls to mind the English expression ‘budding talent.’

Orange-couples who want children choose this color and it also offers protection against disaster.

Peach-this is a color of love and attracts romance and passion.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, as I’ve seen mention of different shades of blue and green, etc.! The furoshiki wrapping cloth below features just a few of the colors that daruma dolls now sport.

red and gold purple daruma doll

Daruma Doll Kanji Meaning

The three daruma dolls depicted on the fabric above happen to not only have different colors, but also different kanji characters written on them. The red one has the most often seen character, pronounced ‘fuku.’  This refers to good fortune in a general sense, which is why it’s so common.

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The yellow daruma doll specifically attracts money, and so it includes the character for money, ‘okane.’ The purple doll has a character read as ‘kotobuki’ which is often used for weddings and other special occasions, as it carries the meaning of long life and longevity as well as congratulations.

The two characters in the middle of the rising sun in back of the dolls are pronounced ‘kai-un’ which is another way to convey a message of good fortune.  These two characters in fact are sometimes written on daruma dolls as well.

What color is your daruma doll?

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Originally posted 2017-03-15 15:18:51.

Daruma Dolls: How Long Can I Keep Mine?

What do you do with a Daruma doll after you’ve achieved your goal and colored the second eye?

It’s a good question, because there is indeed a protocol for daruma dolls, and for good luck charms in general, and a daruma doll offers itself as a wonderful window onto interesting aspects of traditional Japanese culture.
But at the same time, as you’ll see, there’s no need to feel compelled to do any particular thing, and the key is to act according to your own feelings.

Traditional Farewell

Daruma dolls are associated with New Year’s in Japan and are usually bought at this time. 12 months later at the start of the new year they’re taken to a temple where they’re ceremonially burned in a ceremony called Daruma Kuyou, and a new one is bought.

So If you happen to live near a Buddhist temple that has such an event and you are so inclined, you might take advantage of it. This is a sort of memorial service that offers a chance to reflect on the year that just ended and express gratitude for the good things it brought.

It’s a poignant way to usher in a new year of possibilities, and perhaps to buy a new daruma doll, too! As with other Japanese charms, simply throwing it in the trash is inappropriate.But having said this, parting with your daruma doll is only an option, not a requirement.

The subject of dolls in this context brings hina dolls to my mind as a contrast. Hina ningyo are the set of dolls including an emperor and empress and their court that are displayed at home by families with daughters for Girls’ Day, which is celebrated on March 3rd.

As lovely as the display is, you’ll be very challenged to find any still out after March 4th, as according to tradition, families that don’t put the dolls back in their storage boxes by the 4th risk late marriages for their daughters.

Keep Your Daruma Doll if You’d Like!

Daruma dolls don’t come with any such caveat and can be kept and displayed indefinitely, if you so choose.

One cozy little Kyoto restaurant that I frequent has one rather large daruma on a shelf on permanent display for each year they’ve been open. It’s a fun way for them to commemorate their years in business and show appreciation to their customers for their shop’s longevity.

Obviously they have no fear of incurring bad luck by keeping their menagerie! Now that they’ve been in business for a dozen years or so, they have quite an impressive row of daruma dolls standing sentinel. It won’t be long before they need another shelf!

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We visited Kyoto’s Daruma-dera (Daruma Temple)recently. As the name implies, it’s a temple known for its collection of daruma dolls, and there are over 8000 of them.  I took the two photos below as we strolled the grounds.

The priest’s wife mentioned one parishioner who kept the same daruma doll for some 30 years, not wanting to part with it. In the end, it was placed in his coffin before his cremation.

This underscored for us her belief that there are no hard and fast rules with this, and the story and the beautiful way in which she took the time to relate it to us gave me a deep sense of her focus on the spirit that the dolls are meant to convey rather than details.

So if you prefer to hang onto your daruma doll after a year has passed, you should by all means do that. One thing to remember is this-display your daruma doll in a place where you can see him, so that you’ll be reminded to take steps, however small, toward the goal you had in mind when you gave him his first eye.

He will serve as a gentle reminder of the principles that bring happiness, which is much more valuable than any luck. This is really where the Daruma’s true power lies, after all.

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Originally posted 2017-03-14 15:17:38.

Daruma Dolls: History and Meaning

What is a daruma doll and what does a daruma doll represent?

These distinct, diminutive figures are said to have been created with Bodhidharma in mind. He was a monk who lived in the 5th or 6th century, and is recognized as the founder of the zen sect of Buddhism.

I took the photo below at ‘Darumadera’ temple in Kyoto, which is also well known for its collection of daruma dolls.

Gazing at this beautiful work,  I imagined the typical daruma doll, with only its face visible, the rest of it resembling a priest’s robe. Because the doll’s countenance is its most distinguishing feature, it’s easy to overlook what’s framing it.  But when you realize that a daruma doll is cloaked in such a robe, it’s easier to grasp its origins.

Daruma Dolls and Zen

Zen Buddhism has garnered attention in the west as a means to cultivate mindfulness. Formal sitting meditation is but one aspect of this training.

In general, it promotes a greater awareness of what’s going on around you, of the reality that exists outside of ourselves and the narrative that our thoughts create, and the resulting lenses that we see the world through.

In this spirit of seeing what is in front of us, I’d like to offer up a simple exercise-take a moment to really look at a daruma!

It occurred to me in writing this that though I have seen hundreds of daruma dolls over the decades of living here in Kyoto, if asked to make a cursory drawing of his face from memory or describe it, I would have little confidence in my ability to recall anything clearly aside from his eyes and his robe!

Facial Features

Daruma dolls made in the traditional way feature a face framed by ample eyebrows and a beard. There’s an understated line representing his mouth that gives him a stoic look, and his robe is embellished with bold but simple brush strokes, often in gold.

Red daruma dolls at Daruma-dera temple in Kyoto.

I’ve read that if you look carefully at his stylized facial hair you’ll find cranes in his eyebrows and turtle shells on his cheeks. That very well may be, and I went looking in his eyebrows for cranes and found them, one on each side-then I found others!

So I ended up wondering what I was seeing and what I was imagining! Maybe I’ve found a new use for daruma dolls-as rorschach tests!

Cranes and turtles are both symbols of longevity in Japan, with the crane said to live 1000 years and the turtle 10,000 years. This makes them very common symbols in Japanese art, especially in connection with auspicious occasions like weddings.

Meaning

Take a look at a daruma doll-what do you see? It’s believed that daruma dolls were introduced in the 1700’s by a priest at a temple in order to satisfy his parishioners’ desire for new charms. As a talisman, there are different ways to look at a daruma doll.

Some might color in an eye and make a wish in the same way you’d make a wish when blowing out the candles of a birthday cake.

I can’t remember being disappointed when such a wish didn’t come true, because I never even deeply thought about what I would wish for before the cake was set in front of me. And I knew that I wasn’t committing myself to doing anything to help to make the wish come true.

Personally, I think that having a daruma doll can be a great way to buoy yourself up when you’re striving to attain some goal that you’ve chosen thoughtfully and are committed to working toward attaining.

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The reason for this lies in the doll’s association with an often used Japanese proverb, ‘nana korobi ya oki’ which translates as ‘fall down seven times, stand up eight.’ It’s represented in kanji characters on the poster below.

fall_down_seven_times_stand_up_eight

This saying has its roots in zen and quite pithily conveys the essence of zen in its message of perseverance in the face of adversity, resilience, and a stoic commitment to seeing something through.This dedication infers a focus on the present moment and what we can make of it.

Poke a daruma doll and you’ll see why it has become so associated with this saying. Though it might look unstable at first glance and easy to topple, it comes right back up. You can’t keep it down.

I’m about to date myself and American pop culture references can’t do justice to the wisdom and beauty of the expression above. But it does somehow take me back to a TV commercial that I must have seen a thousand times in the 70’s…… weebles wobble but they don’t fall down!

I’ve taken part in some meditation sessions and at times a priest would circulate among us ‘sitters’ and stop at times to hit someone on the shoulder with a piece of wood. It wasn’t hard enough to hurt, but it certainly does tend to bring you back to the moment.

Daruma dolls are very useful for goal setting and achievement as reminders of the goal we’ve set for ourselves. We take the time to clarify the goal and to imagine achieving it when we color in the first eye, and put the daruma doll in a place where it can be seen(and where it can see us!). Over the next year, it serves as a physical manifestation of the commitment felt on that day when a pupil was drawn in that blank space where eyes should be.

And as far as goals go, these days daruma dolls come in a rainbow of colors, which each color purported to help you focus on a specific sort of goal. Gold, for example, predictably is the color of choice if money is what you’re after.  Check out the link to my post about other color meanings at the end of this post.

Let the daruma doll remind you of that as you use your days to challenge yourself by devoting time and effort to your goal, no matter how uphill the process feels at times. And just remember that for better or worse you won’t be pulled back to your focus with a sudden whack on your shoulder, but with a watchful eye!

Kyoto Collection is part of the Amazon Associates program, which means I earn a small amount of money every time you click on a link I provide and purchase something on Amazon. It will be put to very good use the next time I take my family to the neighborhood revolving sushi joint, and we thank you!

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Originally posted 2017-03-13 15:16:37.

Daruma Dolls: Which Eye First?

Which eye should I color first? It’s only after you’ve already bought a daruma doll and are cradling it it one palm while gazing into its curious countenance that you’re likely to consider this question.

Which daruma doll eye should I color first?’ Daruma are sometimes sold without eyes painted on them, and the pupils are filled in by the owner. The first is added when you decide the goal you want to enlist the doll’s help in attaining. You fill in the other when you’ve reached it.

The Left Eye…..?

Many sources say that you should color the left eye first. And by this, by the way, they mean the doll’s left eye, not the eye that is on your left as you face him. Knowing this important detail will certainly clarify things if you saw such advice online and were wondering whose left it was referring to!

But now that I’ve cleared that up, I’m going to say something that makes it moot. Because in fact, it doesn’t matter which eye you color when you make your wish or goal.

Even though I’ve lived in Japan since 1997 and have colored my share of daruma doll eyes, I wasn’t really sure which pupil should be filled in first until I started writing this article, as I assumed there was a right and a wrong way to do this and I’d forgotten which eye I’d chosen in the not so recent past!

What’s Important

Takasaki Daruma

For the answer, I went straight to the horse’s mouth. In this case, since my daruma doll itself was mum on the subject, that means I checked with an organization of daruma doll makers called Gunma Daruma Doll Manufacturers’ Cooperative Union.

Gunma is a prefecture that includes Takasaki City, where about 80% of Japan’s daruma dolls are made. On their English website the association notes the prevailing advice about the left eye, but goes on to refute it by saying that ‘there is no correct order of painting eyes on a daruma doll.’

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The black daruma doll below is said to ward off evil and is a fine example of the work of Takasaki City’s craftsmen. The kanji and hiragana characters written vertically on a red base in the photo are read as ‘Takasaki Daruma’. You can buy it and others on amazon.

For good measure I went to Kyoto’s Horin-ji Temple.  There are actually two temples with this name in Kyoto. This one is most commonly known as ‘Daruma-dera‘ which means ‘Daruma Temple.’ 

The other Horin-ji Temple is in Kyoto’s Arashiyama area and has no special connection with daruma dolls. So if you make a plan to go to see the daruma dolls here, it’s best to refer to this temple as Daruma-dera, which is what the locals call it. The 8,000 or so daruma dolls there will soon make it clear you’ve found the right place!

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We had a wonderful chat with the priest, who was busy with his daily chores but took the time to show us a sublime life-size reclining Buddha statue and an intricate scroll which depicted the Buddha’s passing. Then we enjoyed some time with his wife, who was manning the small office at the entrance.

The photo below shows some of the ema prayer plaques on a board just inside the entrance. You can read more about the history of ema in an article I posted here.

I noticed that many of the daruma dolls for sale there already have both eyes colored in and have specific focuses, such as protecting against traffic accidents and as writing this article has stirred up many questions in my mind, I asked her for her thoughts on the significance of the dolls.

She gifted us with a heartfelt expression of her hope that people focus more on the important message that the daruma represents, rather than on trivial things like which eye gets colored. She mentioned the tradition of coloring the daruma’s right eye first(the left eye as you’re facing it), but in the next breath discounted its significance. She impressed on us the importance of intention and spirit and I was struck by her humility and warmth, which seemed to exemplify the true spirit of dharma.

Color the right eye when you get it? Fine. The left? Fine. Buy your daruma doll with the eyes already colored? Perfectly acceptable. Color the eyes purple with long lashes? Inspired! Keep it rather than returning it to the temple where you got it after a year? Why not!  What a wonderful afternoon. We left feeling invigorated and grateful to both of them for sharing their home and hearts with us.

Kyoto Collection is part of the Amazon Associates program, which means I earn a small amount of money every time you click on a link I provide and purchase something on Amazon. It will be put to very good use the next time I take my family to the neighborhood revolving sushi joint, and we thank you!

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Originally posted 2017-03-11 15:21:48.