Daruma Dolls @ Zenkō-ji

One late afternoon, I was walking through Zenkō-ji compound, carrying daily grocery shopping. The sun was fading first and the temperature was plunging accordingly…

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As I followed a footpath tracing the east side of the main hall, a tiny timber hut with Daruma dolls came in sight…

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The hut was a collection point for spent Daruma dolls. Collecting spent/unwanted Daruma dolls at temples and shrines at the beginning of every year is an old Japanese custom. The invitation is open to anyone…

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Despite its humorous and colourful look, the Daruma doll is not a plaything but a talisman. When a Daruma is bought at the temple for the first time, the eyes of the doll are blank. Then, only the right eye is painted in by a wish-bearer with a wish – wishes such as passing exams, finding a good job, etc. The remaining left eye is painted in only when the original wish has come true.

Daruma dolls are made from layers of paper stretched over bamboo framing, therefore, they are hollow & light. Traditionally, they used to be painted red or occasionally white, however nowadays, a modern Daruma doll comes in all colours and sizes…

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Originally, a Daruma is modelled after Darumataishi (Bodhidharma), the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. The figure, which depicting Darumataishi deep in meditation, also epitomises the virtue of patience and perseverance. There is a Japanese proverb related to Daruma – “七転び八起き”, nanakorobiyaoki – even if one falls 7 times, it is okay if one picks itself up 8 times. The round shape of Daruma doll is prone to be knocked over but also easy to rise, a metaphor for human resilience.

I noticed that one of the Daruma dolls deposited at the hut didn’t have any eye at all…

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Was it an unwanted gift given by an overzealous parent / friend / colleague? Looking at it at home may be a depressing reminder for him/her.

This stall by Zenkō-ji was selling Daruma dolls…

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Since annual exam season in Japan is reaching fever pitch towards the middle of February, I am certain they will make brisk trade…

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

6 thoughts on “Daruma Dolls @ Zenkō-ji

  1. I love these cultural insights..and I embrace the idea that it’s OK to fail, as long as you pick yourself up. Better weather in London today – we saw a bit of blue – but the wind has changed and it’s now getting colder.. xxx

    • Oh thank you, Kate! It’s fun for me to write about some Japanese old custom because I can investigate & re-learn about the history. I’m glad the weather in London is improving. Nagano is mega cold right now. Last night was -9 and Nagano was the coldest place in the main land Japan! Even if I tucked myself in bed, my nose was icy cold 😱 xxx

  2. So that’s what they are. I’ve come across these images in photos and this is the first time I knew what they were. Thanks for the post! 🙂

    So collecting spent dolls would be free? They would be interesting conversation pieces.

    • Even though I have never bought a Daruma doll for myself – my parents were never into that sort of things, it is a popular custom among the Japanese. Temples and shrines collect used Daruma once a year and they burn them with a huge bonfire. I missed it this time (it was happening after I left Nagano). Another popular spectacle of January! 😉

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