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The big round red dolls look slightly intimidating, if you ask me. The colours invoke images of rage and inferno, the facial expressions are on a scale between grumpy and homicidal, and the lack of limbs make me fear there must be hidden powers in the body.
These are the Daruma dolls – the traditional hollow emblems of Japanese mysticism – and I have come to the place of their origin to learn more about these iconic figures.
Apparently they are not nearly a scary as they appear on first sight.
A few of hours northwest of Tokyo, in the city of Takasaki, is a temple called Syorinzan Darumaji. It is here, several hundred years ago, that the first Daruma dolls were made.
The priest of the temple made the original wooden carvings in the eighteenth century to give to the local people to bring them luck during a famine. They were based on the image of an old prophet from the sixth century who was the first patriarch of Zen in China before coming to Japan.
There’s not much information about whether the original Daruma dolls saved the people of Takasaki from the famine but, in some sense, they did bring the region good luck.
It started the craze of the dolls which still continues today – and the most popular ones are those made by the locals around the Daruma temple.
These days more than a hundred local farm families make almost two million of the dolls each year!
Japanese families traditionally buy Daruma dolls at the start of the year because they bring good luck. The ritual is to paint the left eye on the doll and make a wish… when it comes true, the right eye is painted on.
At the end of the year, regardless of the outcome, the dolls are burnt at a big ceremony.
(If I had one, I would make a wish that my doll had two eyes, just to see how the spirits handed this catch-22!)
This good luck charm has crept its way (how, with no arms or legs, I don’t know) into the fabric of Japanese society.
During election time, politicians will be photographed painting the first eye onto a Daruma doll…
The image has been turned into toys which are in bedrooms of youngsters all across the country…
And the annual festival at the start of the new year in Takasaki attracts more than 400,000 people.
Syorinzan Darumaji temple in Takasaki
You wouldn’t realise how big and important the Daruma doll is from visiting the temple in Takasaki, which is rather unassuming (other than the enormous sign pointing towards it from the highway).
It is just a small building up on a hill, about an hour’s walk from the city’s main train station.
On the morning I visit, there are only a few other people there. I pick up a brochure in English from the information centre and then climb a long stone staircase to get to the shrine at the top.
There are dolls – of all different sizes – everywhere around the temple and I love the look of them piled up on top of each other on a balcony.
A small one-room museum next to the main temple is filled with examples of Daruma dolls, from the very first woodblock designs right through to packets of instant noodles.
It doesn’t matter what form they come in, though, they always look grumpy. It’s the distinctive dour doll.
(Except for the instant noodles, it seems, because nobody wants cranky ramen.)
In the end I didn’t get one for myself. Who knows how it will affect my luck for the year. I just couldn’t get over how angry they look and didn’t want that following me around until next January!