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.

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).

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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?

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.