It’s been a long dull year on the festival front here in Japan.
Much has been cancelled due to Covid, and understandably so. But part of what makes Japan’s calendar so colorful are the fantastic festivals across the island. This year, we’ve gotten barely a whisper of the usual enthusiasm.
For some reason, Jindaiji temple in western Tokyo decided to hold their annual daruma fair this past week (March 3rd and 4th) and honestly, it was one of the most interesting festivals I’ve attended in a very long time. (Granted, I haven’t attended any festivals in a very long time so my perception may be skewed, but trust me when I say, this one is worth your time.)
The Jindaiji daruma fair has been going on since the Edo Period (1603-1868) but no one I asked could pin down an exact date. The temple itself allegedly dates back to 733, but the main hall was rebuilt most recently in the 1900s. Still, with its forested setting on the edge of the Jindai Botanical Garden, it’s a spot that makes for a lovely wander.
The fair is held just two days a year, and brings together daruma craftsmen from across the Kanto region. I chatted with a man who’d been coming for the past 50 years from Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture (where most of Japan’s daruma are produced), but some stall owners came from areas closer to “home”, like the Nishitama region of western Tokyo.
Daruma are allegedly modeled after the Bodhi Dharma, a 5th or 6th century Indian practitioner of Buddhism who may have introduced the religion to China. During his time in China, he was said to have meditated for nine years in a cave, simply staring straight ahead at the rock wall. His arms and legs atrophied and “fell off” from lack of use, giving us the rounded doll we have today.
Daruma of all shapes, sizes and colors are available for sale. The colors all have different meanings, though I’ve seen different lists that state different things, so just be aware.
- Red: Good luck & fortune.
- White: Purity
- Yellow or Gold: Money & fame.
- Black: Prevention of Bad Luck
- Orange: School Success
- Blue: Education & Work Status
- Green: Health & Fitness
- Purple: Self-improvement & Personality
- Pink: Love & Romance
- Silver: Social Status
Red is the standard and the most popular of the colors, so if you’re struggling to choose a suitable daruma, go with the tried and true.
One stall owner told me that for their first-ever daruma, most Japanese people buy the smallest one. Then they continue to “size-up” as the years go by.
When you buy a daruma, you should make a wish and then color in one of the blank eyes. At the temple itself, stall owners will paint your wish on the back of a new daruma.
Customers can then bring the daruma to the priests, where they will paint the eye with special kanji character. If your wish comes true, return the following year and the priests will paint in the other eye with a character signifying its fulfillment.
And then? It gets tossed into the bin of burnables. Sadly, these lovely little dolls aren’t usually kept around once their purpose has been served. Rather, they’re returned to the temple and the priests dispose of them in a special ceremony.
Some stalls had creative daruma for sale, in the style of the ox (this year’s zodiac animal), a cat, or even an amabie (an old Japanese “monster” that’s making a resurgence this year since it’s supposed to help protect from sickness and pandemics).
There are plenty of food stalls available at the fair, or you can choose to eat at one of the temple’s many soba restaurants. You can also watch them cutting fresh soba noodles in shop windows, or buy takeaway soba treats such as soba manju (a sweet bun made from soba flour).
I find it easiest to reach Jindaiji by taking the Keio line train from Shinjuku to Chofu, and then a bus or taxi (about 1100 one way) to the temple itself.
When I look at all of these heads in plastic, all I want to do is remove the plastic so they can breathe. I know , it is pretty crazy, but that is how I react. A lady I know wrote children’s books and had some dolls that went with them. They were all in plastic. It horrified me. But, probably the same reason in Japan, it was the only way to keep them germ free until they were sold. The list of the meanings of colors is interesting. Most seem to be almost obvious. I wouldn’t consider Black to be prevention of bad luck. I love the Owls? and Kitties. We don’t use colors enough in the USA.
I think the plastic was definitely a germ prevention thing. Japan is certainly big into plastic wrapping, but I haven’t always seen daruma so wrapped up.