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.

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

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.

JapanesePod101.com – The Fastest Way to Learn Japanese Guaranteed

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?

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

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!

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!

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

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.

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!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

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.

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

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!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

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.’

JapanesePod101.com – The Fastest Way to Learn Japanese Guaranteed


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!

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

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!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

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

The Japanese Zodiac Animals and Ema Prayer Plaques

”A horse is a horse, of course, of course………”

~ Mr. Ed

Without contradicting the world’s most famous talking horse, let me just add that sometimes horses are also small pieces of wood, at least here in Japan. I offer exhibit A:

ema kyoto japan

The petite wooden prayer plaques in the photo to the left are called ema and in Japan they’re a common sight at shrines and temples.

Anyone can buy one for the equivalent of around $5 US and write a message on the back and the staff will add it to the others, so that the gods will take notice and hopefully grant the writer’s wishes.  Tje Japanese zodiac animals are but one motif of many that you’ll find on this small wooden boards.

The Evolution of Ema in Japan

Centuries ago though, parishioners offered horses to shrines to gain the gods’ favor. On a practical level, horses were valuable assets, and they were also thought of as divine messengers. So offering a horse was seen as a natural way for prosperous members of the flock to express their faith and offer their support.

But over time, the practice faded-after all, horses are beyond the means of most of us, and then there’s the issue of schlepping one to the shrine!

So at some point, some enterprising, innovative soul came up with the idea of simply portraying a horse on a piece of wood that could serve as a stand-in for the real thing and be sold at places of worship for a nominal cost.

Suddenly anyone could offer a horse, and in addition to the image of a horse on the front, the reverse side of the ‘ema’ plaque became a useful place for the the donor to write their wishes(often for good health, with prayers for exam success also a mainstay these days).

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

If you’re looking for Japanese good luck charms, you might well have something other than ema in mind. Such charms, unlike ema, are kept, at least for a time, and are carried on one’s person or kept in one’s car and often come in very small, decorative drawstring pouches with kanji characters on them. They are also often protection against specific dangers, such as traffic accidents, etc.

You can see this rich history in modern-day ema if you look at their shape and at the name itself. There’s no hard and fast rule governing what a prayer plaque can look like, and many places these days strive to stand out by creating distinct styles or designs.

The most common though, are the sort in the photos in this post, a pentagonal piece of wood with a peaked top. This represents the roof of the barn that the horse is sheltered in. Originally, ema quite predictably depicted horses, and the name literally means ‘picture-horse’ with 絵(‘e’)conveying the meaning of a picture and 馬(‘ma’)representing a horse.

Over time places started to create 絵馬 with a variety of other illustrations, depending on that particular temple or shrine’s own history. The Kyoto shrine where I took the photo below, for example, has a strong connection to inoshihi(boar), so you’ll find an 絵馬 with a cute version of a tusker.

Ema and Japanese Zodiac Signs

Ema also often depict the creature in the ‘eto’ animal zodiac whose turn it is in a given year of the twelve year cycle. That’s why Kyoto’s Goh Shrine, also popularly known as the boar shrine, displays a giant ema with the animal of the annum on the side of one of its buildings. The picture below will tell you which animal’s turn it is this year, if you don’t already know.

ema

The boar by the way, along with the monkey above, is one of the animals in this zodiac, and yes, this particular shrine is especially festive when the Year of the Boar rolls around!

The horse is also in the animal zodiac lineup, and so in horse years, a great number of ema happen to be especially true to their name and their roots.

Here’s a nice example of all of the animals of the zodiac shown together, on a furoshiki cloth that features them on ema with a traditional repeat pattern called asanoha as a base.

I happen to be a horse, born in 1966.  If you don’t know what animal you are, check this list of the animals and their respective years:

Rat/Mouse

2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936, 1924

Ox/Cow  

2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937, 1925

Tiger  

2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938, 1926

Rabbit 

2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939, 1927

Dragon  

2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940, 1928

Snake 

2013, 2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941, 1929

Horse 

2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930, 1918

Sheep

2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931, 1919

Monkey  

2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, 1932, 1920

Rooster/Chicken 

2005, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, 1933, 1921

Dog 

2006, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, 1934, 1922

Boar

2007, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935, 1923

Soooo………..What’s your sign?

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

Originally posted 2016-09-15 14:31:11.

There’s a Rabbit in the Moon and he’s making mochi!

What?!  There’s a rabbit in the moon?!

Growing up in the states, when I looked at the moon I saw a man there. I never thought about what he was doing or how he got there, but there he was. I could make out his face, and I took it for granted that other cultures saw the same sort of imagery.

Certainly, Americans aren’t alone in seeing him. But when I moved to Japan, I was surprised to find out that according to folklore, there’s actually a rabbit up there!

It turns out that it’s also quite common to see a rabbit in the moon, as it appears in folklore throughout East Asia and also also in ancient Aztec mythology. And so if you’re looking for rabbit fabric with an Asian flair, it’s likely that you’ll come across motifs connected with this legend.

This rabbit has taken on special characteristics in the Japanese version of the legend, and is often shown in distinctly Japanese scenes, mostly associated with autumn and the harvest moon. The furoshiki cloth above features such a scene, with traditional autumn grasses. Click on the photo to see it and others on amazon. Can you spot the rabbit?

In other posts I looked at some of the celebrated ‘seven grasses of autumn’ which appear frequently on furoshiki cloths and other textiles. The harvest moon is also a common element in such motifs, as are rabbits, playfully hopping through the grasses in the glow of the moon. This has made these designs quite popular among rabbit lovers, as well as those with an interest in Japan and Japanese fabrics.

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

The rabbit has quite a big role in ‘tsukimi’ moon-viewing festivities and designs such as the Japanese noren split curtain below because he has a place in folklore that forever ties him with the moon in a very significant way.

The rabbit in the moon came to be there, according to Japanese legend, because he passed a test and demonstrated his virtue when he was among three animals called upon to perform an act of charity for someone in need. He literally threw himself on a cooking fire in the service of another, a sacrifice that went went beyond the earnest actions of the others.

If the rabbit hadn’t been the one to commit this supremely selfless act, according to Japanese myth there might instead be a frog or a fox in the moon and on your fabric!

But before you feel too sorry for the others, I should mention that the rabbit isn’t idle up there. He seems to be enjoying his work, but he is certainly keeping busy. He’s making mochi rice cakes, pounding the rice, which has been placed in a mortar.

I can say from personal experience that it’s harder than it looks!

Neighborhoods often have mochi rice cake pounding events during the first few days of the new year, and I have taken part and given the mochi a few good whacks when folks are taking turns at it, and I can say that it would take some stamina and technique to see the whole process through from start to finish.

Not only is the mallet heavy, but the person swinging it needs to take great care in their timing. Accuracy isn’t a big challenge, as the big blob of sticky, pounded rice is an easy target.

But rhythm is crucial because there’s teamwork involved, as a second person is adding water a little at a time and turning the mochi-in-the-making in between impacts so that it won’t stick to the mallet and so it all gets pounded into the same consistency.

furoshiki

The first time someone passed the mallet to me I underestimated its heft because the welcoming, diminutive elderly lady who put it in my hands had been pounding away with great gusto and had made it look easy! The gentleman who was turning the mochi in the stone mortar as I wielded the mallet showed great faith in a novice’s ability to avoid his fingers and quite nimbly stayed out of the mallet’s way, which all added up to a wonderful time with friendly people, delicious mochi with nary a mishap.

Here’s a short video of some pros pounding mochi during an event at a famous old mochi shop in Nara. They’re showing off their well honed skills here, working at a fast pace and doing stunts to thrill the crowd who, like me, had likely never seen turbocharged mochi pounding like this!

JapanesePod101.com – The Fastest Way to Learn Japanese Guaranteed

Like the rabbits in the above furoshiki, there are a couple of guys swinging mallets together, and at one point a third even joins in, but usually just one person pounds at a time, for obvious safety reasons. This virtuoso performance is capped by the serving of fresh mochi rice cakes to an appreciative throng of customers.

The mochi in the video is a beautiful green hue because Japanese mugwort(yomogi)has been added. This is lot of fun to watch.  Just don’t try it at home!

You might get the chance to try it for yourself if you head to a Japanese culture festival, as some are held overseas, too. But whether you ever hold the mallet or not, don’t forget to give the next full moon a good look-you might be surprised by what looks back at you!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

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 at no added cost to you. 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!

Originally posted 2016-09-03 15:05:27.

Japan’s Seven Grasses of Autumn Part 2

Could you identify the the tall grass depicted in the closeup of the furoshiki in my last post? I mentioned it earlier in that article, and it’s none other than Japanese pampas grass. It’s a mainstay in fall season motifs, often paired with bush clover.

It’s a tall, delicate grass with a lovely ‘tail’ at the top that gives it one of its names in Japanese, obana, which literally means ‘ tail flower.’ And it does look like a horse’s tail, with its chestnut color and gentle swaying as it catches an autumn breeze.

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

It’s also known as susuki, a name you can remember by associating it with the common surname ‘Suzuki’ and changing the pronunciation slightly so that the first two syllables sound alike.

Here are closeups of two furoshiki cloths with fall season motifs that include both bush clover and susuki.

Its height and the way its delicate tassels shimmer in the light make Japanese pampas grass a fixture in classical verse that has so movingly and vividly captured the essence of autumn over the centuries. This ethereal quality is used to great effect on fabrics like these, which depict night scenes with a luminous harvest moon as the centerpiece.

And the moon plays a central role in the furoshiki below, which also highlights our third grass. Kikyo are bellflowers, and it seems that hair ornament designers are as taken by them as textile artists and poets. Their beautiful purple is the inspiration for the overall color scheme of this charming scene with rabbits jumping in the moonlight:

Look closely and you’ll notice bush clover and Japanese pampas grass, and a pair of rabbits jumping in the moon’s glow.  By the time a typically hot and humid Japanese summer starts to wind down I inevitably start to look forward to autumn’s cool breezes and all of its other charms, including these traditional symbols of the season.

As I write these words on a sultry late August Kyoto evening, I’m reminded that another glorious autumn isn’t far away!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

Originally posted 2016-08-21 14:52:53.

Japan’s Seven Grasses of Autumn Part 1

The Japanese have long had a keen awareness of the seasons and a sensitivity to the things that make each time of year distinct. So it’s no surprise that so many furoshiki and tenugui and Japanese textiles in general celebrate the seasons in their motifs.

Over the years though, as I’ve discovered more and more designs to include in my shop, I’ve been struck by how ubiquitous autumn designs are. Why should this be?

One answer might simply be that artists have so many symbols to choose from when they create fall scenes. The case could also be made that autumn is closest to the hearts of many Japanese, and perhaps not coincidentally it’s a time of year when it seems that seasonal delicacies are most abundant and savored.

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

It’s true of course that spring is well represented, but so much of that as far as textile design goes seems to center on the ephemeral cherry blossoms, or sakura as they’re called in Japanese.

Autumnal motifs on the other hand seem to offer more variety. Even though some themes may dominate, these motifs are often made up of a variety of different patterns and scenes in a single composition.

It’s a delight to focus on a design and give it a chance to reveal itself. When it comes to fall season motifs plants play a central role, and there are actually a set number, seven to be exact, that are known as the grasses of autumn that I’d like to introduce this time.

These have had a prominent role in the way Japanese represent and think about the season since classical times and their names are ubiquitous in literature. They are:

  • Hagi
  • Kuzu
  • Obana
  • Ominaeshi
  • Nadeshiko
  • Fujibakama
  • Kikyo

This post and the next will focus on the three that in my experience are most commonly seen on furoshiki and similar Japanese fabrics, obana, hagi and kikyo.

You’ll soon see that the term ‘grasses’ is used in a general sense here and includes a variety of plants. My favorite, hagi, is the one I’ll introduce this time. It’s in peak form in early autumn, usually at some point between the first half of September to the first half of October depending on the place.

JapanesePod101.com – The Fastest Way to Learn Japanese Guaranteed

Below is a closeup of bush clover from a furoshiki cloth. Bush clover leaves grow in clusters of three oval leaflets. This motif depicts the plant in a typical way with some of the leaflets dissected by a vertical line, which reminded me of coffee beans years ago when I first saw a piece of fabric with a similar scene!

Hagi are known as bush clover or Japanese clover in English. It’s one of many plants I’ve become aware of only since moving to Japan. Until I sat down to write this, I wasn’t sure if it’s even found back home in the states. It turns out that it is, but it has mostly been thought of in the US in practical rather than decorative terms. It’s sometimes used as cover for pastures and as fodder for livestock and in fighting erosion, and even in greening up abandoned mining sites. As it’s a member of the pea family and spreads quickly, it’s well suited for such purposes. So if you live in a zone that’s favorable, this harbinger of autumn might be the perfect choice for your garden, as long as you take care not to let it go unchecked.

Rabbits are also a symbol of autumn and often are shown with autumn grasses, as on the textile below:

If you look you’ll notice bush clover along with another of the seven grasses-can you name that one as well? No worries if you can’t-that’ll be the focus of anther post!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

Originally posted 2016-08-18 14:37:33.

Japanese Cotton Fireman’s Sashiko ‘Hikeshi Banten’ Hanten Jackets: Wearable Art

When I came upon this antique fireman’s hanten(jacket) from the Meiji(1868-1912) or early Taisho(1912-1926)period, it prompted me to do some research on these rugged, well crafted and often whimsically decorated coats. It also prompted me to open my wallet, but that’s another story!

Sashiko hanten like this are called ‘hikeshi banten’ in Japanese, literally ‘fireman’s jacket.’ Its heavy cotton was meant to absorb a good deal of water to help protect its wearer from the fire. After being soaked in water, they were worn with the plain side facing out, with the design as the lining. It must have been quite heavy with all that water weight added to this thick fabric!

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

In the days before electricity came into widespread use, it was all too common in Japan for fires to break out on account of candles and lanterns, and as Japanese houses are traditionally made of wood and paper, it’s not hard to imagine how formidable and common a foe fire was in the daily lives of the citizenry.

As such, the role of the fireman in the community was vital and the rudimentary tools that they relied on along with the factors mentioned above stacked the odds in favor of the fire more often than not. Firemen were therefore seen as courageous men of valor and honor who would without hesitation sacrifice themselves in the interest of coming to the aid of their community.

After the fire was put out, the firemen would take off their jackets and wear them inside out to to show off the elaborate designs that had been hidden from view until then. To see firemen wearing their jackets in such showy fashion was to know that the danger was past and they had come through the battle unscathed, or at least well enough to fight again.

They’d then walk through town on the way perhaps to a local drinking establishment, attracting the gaze of admiring townsfolk appreciative of their courage and envious of their distinctive jackets, in a victory lap of sorts.

The theme of the work is referred to as ‘Hi no tamashi ni mukao wakamusha’ in Japanese, which means ‘A Young Warrior Confronts the Spirit of the Fire.’

These are always a pleasure to come across, and if you’re interested in seeing a range of intriguing motifs, a quick net search should yield interesting results.

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

Originally posted 2015-09-22 14:30:03.

Arashiyama Monkey Park: Wild Monkeys and a Great Kyoto View!

Looking for fun and unique things to do in Arashiyama?

In addition to its other charms, the area offers a great view of the city if you’re willing to set aside a little time and don’t mind some climbing. And Arashiyama Monkey Park on Iwatayama Mountain is a great reason to make the hike!

When you visit Kyoto, especially if your trip comes on the heels of time spent in Tokyo, you’ll likely be struck by the low skyline. Kyoto City imposes strict regulations on construction, which has helped Kyoto to maintain its charms over the years, even as other locales succumb to development and the ‘higher is better’ mentality.

Look and you’ll notice Kyoto Tower in the top photo. It certainly stands out, whereas it would surely be lost among the jumble of tall buildings that define Tokyo!

This also means though, that finding a good vantage point from which to get the lay of the land can be a challenge.  One great way to get a memorable view of the city is to head over to the western part of Kyoto.

Arashiyama plays host to a unique center often referred to in English as Monkey Park or Monkey Mountain.  You’ll also find it if you search using the name of the proper name of the mountain, Iwateyama(yama means mountain in Japanese).  The official English website is here.

After a climb, you’ll be greeted by wild monkeys, who are fed by the staff there.  Visitors also can feed them, with food for sale on the premises. There are feeding stations that visitors enter before offering snacks to the monkeys gathered outside.  Quite a refreshing twist on the standard scenario that finds the monkey in the enclosed space!

JapanesePod101.com – Learn Japanese with Free Daily Podcasts

While this is highly recommended, it isn’t for everyone-those with leg problems or other health issues should carefully consider whether they’re up to the climb, which can feel steep at times, especially in hot weather.  Kyoto’s humid summers make it seem even steeper, so do keep the season and the weather as well as your physical condition in mind before heading up there.  As always, a bottle of water, regardless of the weather, will serve you well!

Originally posted 2015-02-17 15:07:55.