CJ Jenkins Culture Field Trips Souvenirs Temple Japan

A lesson from Daruma

I recently had the opportunity to learn about an ancient Japanese tradition directly from a master of the craft who has been practicing it his entire life! Daruma are small, head shaped dolls molded from paper mâché that are meant to depict the image of the Indian Bodhidharma. They are said to represent good luck and resilience and can be found in the homes of many Japanese families. To learn more about them, TUJ created an excursion to Daimonya, one of the largest Daruma producers in Japan, in Gunma’s prefecture to learn about Daruma from a 4th generation expert, and create our very own! 

When we arrived at the shop, there was a huge stone Daruma sitting outside. It was a dead giveaway that we were in the right spot. But if that wasn’t enough, the walls inside the shop were stacked with hundreds and hundreds and all kinds of Daruma. Their sizes ranged from small enough to hold a couple of them in your hand, to ones that you couldn’t even  wrap both arms around. Most of them had the signature look – a red body and a white face that featured a specific design that was consistent throughout most of the dolls – but they had a lot of unique ones as well. 

Stacks of the larger Daruma. They all have the same facial design, but one of them on the right has a rainbow body pattern.
These are some of the bigger Daruma that were on display, all of which were made within this shop. Despite their size, they are all very light because of their paper mâché properties. 
A large statue of a man sitting on some sort of a throne, holding a fishing rod with a bag of little Daruma attached to it.
I didn’t get the chance to ask who this was supposed to be or why it was there but I thought it was pretty interesting.

We headed towards the back of the building to the actual “workshop” where they prepared and painted all the Daruma. Before meeting Sumikazu Nakata, the owner of the shop, we watched a video that explained some of the intricacies of Daruma. The eyebrows of the Daruma represent two cranes, while the beard and mustache represent tortoises. I wouldn’t have ever guessed that, but in hindsight, I see them both clearly now. In Japanese culture, both of these animals represent longevity, which adds to the Daruma’s meaning of good luck and prosperity. When we walked into the actual workspace, Sumikaza sensei (in Japanese culture, this honorific is used with those who are highly accredited in their profession; doctors, college professors, etc.) was already working on some Daruma, and was so focused it seemed like he didn’t even notice we walked in. He didn’t speak English, but one of our staff members was there to translate. He told us that he learned the art of Daruma painting from his father, and eventually inherited the shop from him. Watching him work was like watching magic; each of the examples he made for us was exactly the same, every stroke was as precise as the last, it was seriously impressive.  

This was my finished product, and you know what? I don’t think it looks too bad. An extra fact about Daruma: The eyes come blank, but you are supposed to make a wish and fill in the left eye. When the wish comes true, you fill in the right eye. Having the Daruma around is supposed to make your wish more likely to come true. 

As expected, making our own was super difficult! You could hear various expressions of frustration in the form of grunts or defeated laughter across the room as we tried to copy the model Daruma placed at our workstations. I have never claimed myself to be an artist, but I definitely wasn’t gonna’ leave with a completely busted Daruma. I don’t think anyone would be able to make a crane or tortoise out of whatever I drew, but it was certainly facial hair. 

 After everyone had finished, Sumikazu sensei gave us all some heartfelt closing statements. In light of how some people weren’t exactly enthralled by how their Daruma came out, he told us that it’s not how it looks that matters, but the effort that we put into them. Of course , ours weren’t going to look like this, but the struggle was part of his journey as well, he said. He didn’t tell us that there is no such thing as bad ones (there are), but that it’s okay when things turn out bad because there’s always something to learn from that. It’s always fascinating to see someone who has perfected what they do and to hear their story.  

You can learn a lot about Japan just by spending time here and going about daily business but putting in a little extra time to explore the more detailed and not as “popular” aspects of the deeply rich culture is so fulfilling. Things like this make me realize how much more there is to learn. How can I do it all in just 4 months!? 

Read about my first impressions of Japan or other student’s experiences

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: