Crash Course: Daruma

I realize that in my post on Kurashiki’s Bikan District, I casually threw out the word daruma without a second thought for an explanation. I apologize and will remedy that here and now – keep your eyes open for these little red dolls as they make classic souvenirs from Japan!

Daruma are hollow, round traditional dolls, said to be modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. Most daruma are painted red, though I have seen other colors and the hue can depend on the region in which the doll originated.

Daruma on sale at a year-end fair
Daruma on sale at a year-end fair

The daruma’s most striking feature, perhaps, is the fact that he is blind, or rather half-blind. Most daruma dolls have no eyes, though this is not an oversight on the artist’s part. Rather, when you buy a daruma doll, you make a wish and paint one of the eyes. If or when your wish comes true, you can paint the daruma’s other eye.

Daruma are often sold at temples; at the end of the year, faithful crowds return to the temple with the doll and offer thanks for the luck it (hopefully) brought them before consigning it to a large bonfire. This of course then necessitates the purchase of a new daruma for the new year … a boon for the temple coffers. 🙂

The daruma has become a favorite around our house, thanks to the fun (and easy-to-read) children’s series involving Daruma-san. As expected, he is a rotund, red character with stubby legs who always seems to be getting into tight spots. I’ve tried searching for them online with no success but if you’re in Japan and happen upon a bookstore (Tsutaya or Kinokuniya are sure bets) these are easy books (hiragana only!) for Japanese learners.

The Daruma-san books
The Daruma-san books

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