A New Year
Every year, people around the world set fresh goals. In Japan, a Daruma doll is a special, tangible way to remind yourself of your new year’s resolution.
Traditionally, the Japanese purchase a new Daruma doll every year and set their goal. Although Daruma dolls can be purchased at many temples and shops throughout Japan, the BEST place to get them is at the temple where they originated: Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple, in Takasaki.
Every January, people flock to the temple and the Shorinzan Nanakusa Taisai Daruma Market Festival.
Happily, my parents and youngest brother were still in Japan visiting for the holidays. We decided to head to Takasaki and continue celebrating the new year like the Japanese.
History of the Daruma Doll
A Daruma doll is unique in so many ways. For starters, the doll is fashioned out of paper-mâché. Secondly, the doll pays homage to a MAN: the monk Bodhidharma, who founded Zen Buddhism in the 6th century. Thirdly, the Daruma doll is missing many physical features that a doll typically has. Finally, the Daruma doll is traditionally burned every January in a temple ritual known as Hatsuichi Matsuri. The burning of the Daruma dolls is said to free the spirit of the Daruma.
According to folklore, the monk Bodhidharma spent nine years in a cave meditating. His concentration was so intense that his arms and legs fell off from lack of use. To ensure his focus remained on his goal, he cut off his own eyelids.
Hence, the doll in his honor has no arms, legs, or eyes.
Those who buy a Daruma doll are invited to paint in one eye of their doll and privately state their goal/wish. When that goal is attained, they paint in the other eye.
I read an interesting question online about whether a Daruma could be “reset” by whiting out the eyes again before making a new wish. The Japanese discourage “recycling” a Daruma. They may be one of the world’s most environmentally friendly countries, but when it comes to goals, the Japanese like new ones.
When I first came to Japan, I thought that the doll looked mean, angry. It was only later that I recognized the expression: utter determination.
It’s a doll that celebrates sacrifice, patience, and tenacity.
Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple
Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple, the birthplace of the Daruma, was built in 1697. Currently, Gunma prefecture accounts for the creation of 80% of Daruma dolls. Therefore, it is THE place to go if you are going to purchase one.
All the images I had seen of the Shorinzan Nanakusa Taisai Daruma Market Festival led me to think the temple would be packed that weekend. I was skeptical as to whether we would be able to fit on the bus. In the interest of time, we took a 10-minute taxi ride from the train station to the base of Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple.
We climbed an especially long set of stairs to the temple and were welcomed by the sound of monks chanting. We purchased incense, wafted the sweet smoke over our bodies to purify them, and said our prayers.
As expected, Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple had Daruma dolls of every size, from pocket-sized, to dolls that dwarfed most humans. There were considerably more color options than I was used to seeing. I was intrigued that after purchasing their dolls, the Japanese brought them to the monks, who laid their hands atop the Daruma dolls and blessed them.
Daruma Doll Meanings
The Daruma doll is traditionally associated with the color red. According to folklore, the red color protected believers from smallpox. Over the centuries, the colors and associated meanings have evolved. A kindly Japanese vendor patiently explained to us the significance of each color.
- Red: good fortune
- Purple: health and longevity
- Gold: wealth and prosperity
- Black: business success
- White: love and harmony
- Green: health
- Blue: academic success
- Pink: romance
- Orange: fertility
I wonder if a doll’s size has any correlation to the boldness of the goal. Does a bigger Daruma doll indicate a grander aspiration?
While I admire the enormous Daruma dolls displayed at the shops, train stations, and restaurants, I confess I prefer my Daruma dolls pocket-sized so that I can take them with me. They are also inexpensive: a palm-sized doll costs ¥800 ($6.19), and an egg-sized doll goes for ¥200 ($1.55).
Striking the Temple Bell
Every time I visit a temple in Japan, I have a fierce desire to strike the main bell. However, the big temple bells have inevitably always been off-limits due to COVID.
Therefore, I was THRILLED that Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple was allowing guests to strike the bell. We waited our turn and removed our shoes, no easy feat on a cold January day. After removing our shoes, we were permitted to climb the stairs leading up the tower.
To strike the bell, you pull the rope attached to a solid beam back several inches, and then release. As the beam strikes the bell, there is a deep, rich, reverberating sound.
According to a posted sign, the first strike of the bell is to pray for peace for yourself and your family. The second strike of the bell is a request for happiness for the whole world.
Shorinzan Nanakusa Taisai Daruma Market Festival
Happily, I have yet to see a Japanese festival in which food is not a key part of the celebration. This seems especially the case when it comes to religious festivals and events. Incredible and inexpensive food can often be had outside a temple or shrine.
There were several dozens of food trucks positioned just behind the temple. Each truck served something unique. There were strawberries wrapped in mochi, freshly baked pizzas, takoyaki (octopus balls), “American” fries, lamb shawarma wraps smothered in terriyaki sauce…the array of exotic delights went on and on.
A Walk to Jigen-in Temple
We’re a family of walkers. Having feasted on food truck delicacies, we decided to walk the 4.6 kilometers (2.9 miles) to Jigen-in Temple. As we left, we saw that we had been incredibly lucky to have made the Darumas our first stop. The foot traffic and vehicular traffic had picked up considerably.
Cardio aside, one of the best perks about walking is that it allows you to appreciate details you can’t otherwise see. We got to appreciate the beautiful snow-capped mountains that surrounded the city.
The first two miles were an uneventful walk along agricultural areas. The last third of walk involved an aggressive push up a 25% slope. Those who get to the top will see stunning views of Takasaki’s three sacred mountain peaks.
And, they’ll see the Bodhisattva Kannon.
Jigen-in Temple was established in 673 A.D. The temple’s most astounding feature is the 41.8 meter statue of Byakue Daikannon (or Bodhisattva Kannon), the Goddess of Mercy. The statue is absolutely stunning.
It’s hard to say which is more striking; the sheer height of the statue, or the peaceful serenity of the Kannon’s expression.
I was trying to pinpoint what the statue reminded me of when Dad said, “She reminds me of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer.”
One represents a Buddhist goddess in Japan, one folded arm holding a scroll. The other represents a Christian Jesus, his arms outstretched to the world. It was an uncanny and very clever comparison to make.
Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer stands 30 meters tall. It was constructed in 1931 out of reinforced concrete. A mere five years later, the Bodhisattva Kannon was built, also out of reinforced concrete. At the time, the 41.8 meter height made the statue the largest Kannon statue in the world.
Both statues are prominently featured atop a hill. The two glorious statues also share a similar sleekness of design. And both invoke a sense of wonder.
Unlike Christ the Redeemer, there were very few people there.
For ¥300 ($2.32), the bold climb the 146 steps INSIDE for views of Takasaki’s famous mountain peaks and 20 enshrined Buddhas.
If You Go – Transportation
Takasaki is an easy day trip if you are coming from Tokyo. The Shinkansen travels directly Tokyo to Takasaki train station in approximately 50 minutes. It is considerably more challenging if you try and get there from Yokosuka (2 hours, 30 minutes by Shinkansen). For this reason, I suggest anyone coming from Yokosuka make it an overnight trip.
If you’ve purchased a JR Pass, the expense for the Shinkansen is covered. If you don’t have a pass, you can purchase a one-way ticket from Tokyo for ¥5260 ($39.95).
Another option, if you have plenty of time and want to travel economically, is to take local trains. We saved almost ¥3000 ($22.79) per person by taking local trains on the way back.
Although the local trains added almost an hour to our travel time, it wasn’t bad. We were lucky to get seats, and in winter the seats on local trains are heated.
A warm bottom is a happy bottom!
If You Go – Practical Considerations
If you’re going during the January festival, it’s best to visit Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple before 10:30 a.m. By afternoon, the crowds pick up considerably.
Takasaki is an exquisitely clean and beautiful place. However, we all noted there are few signs in English. It is not a place that casual Western tourists appear to frequent, which made us happy. We felt less like tourists, and more like lucky “in the know” adventurers. We were also able to navigate around Takasaki easily thanks to Google Maps.
Just bear in mind that a trip there does require either a certain amount of confidence, or a total willingness to put yourself out there. Rest assured, the journey is worth the effort.
Personal note: I have great respect for Japanese tradition. However, there is no way I’m burning my Daruma doll next year. Rather, it will be a lasting reminder of a special place, and a very special time.
Here’s wishing you and your loved ones a safe and prosperous New Year, and many happy adventures!