Crafting Japan's rotund good-luck dolls

Updated 3rd March 2018
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Crafting Japan's rotund good-luck dolls
Written by Emiko Jozuka, CNN
This weekend, the usually tranquil Jindaiji Temple in Tokyo will be overrun by bright red, one-eyed figures. Some will have no eyes at all.
But while this may sound like the set of a Japanese horror film, the effigies, known as Daruma dolls, symbolize the ability to overcome challenges and achieve one's goals. Found in homes and Buddhist temples across the country, the lucky charms are used by everyone from politicians seeking election success to those searching for love or good grades.
The Daruma fair at Jindaiji Temple marks the beginning of spring in the lunar calendar. Named after the monk and founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma (or "Daruma" in Japanese), the dolls are traditionally bought at beginning of each year, when old effigies are burned and exchanged for new ones.
"The Daruma doll is very precious to Japanese people, but it's not viewed as a deity," said Chihiro Nakata, a fifth generation Daruma craftsman, in a phone interview. "Instead, it's a symbol of perseverance and new beginnings."

Luck and longevity

Each of Japan's 47 prefectures produces its own unique style of doll. The city of Takasaki in Gunma prefecture, where Nakata works, is responsible for more than 80% of the country's Daruma dolls, producing 900,000 of them a year, according to Japan's National Tourism Organization. Nakata's employer, a famous Daruma store called Daimonya, claims to produce 7,000 of the talismans every year.
To create the hollow dolls, artisans at Daimonya dip a metal mold into liquid papier-mache. The figurines are left to dry before being sanded down and coated in white paint. A clay base is then attached to the doll's base to prevent it from rolling over. Finally, each one is dipped in red paint before the rest of the face is drawn on.
Faces are typically decorated using two animals associated with good luck and longevity in Japan -- cranes and turtles. The former appear as eyebrows while two of the latter form a beard. Japanese characters denoting good luck or happiness are usually painted onto the Daruma dolls' torsos.
After purchasing their figurines, people traditionally color in the left eye with black ink to symbolize a wish. The right eye is left blank and is only filled in once the owner's wish comes true. In the meantime, Daruma dolls are usually placed on a kamidana -- a miniature altar facing south, found in many Japanese homes.
"The Daruma's right eye faces the sunrise," Nakata explained. "This is meant to symbolize the fact that, by the time the sun sets, your wish will be granted,"

An evolving tradition

Farmers in Takasaki began making and selling the dolls around 200 years ago. They were believed to protect children from diseases such as smallpox, as well as promoting good harvests and easing childbirth.
Early designs appeared more human-like, with separate heads and torsos, and it is thought that they were inspired by images of Daruma engaged in Zen meditation. But as silk production flourished in Takasaki, farmers started to model their dolls on silkworm cocoons that acted as harbingers of good fortune.
According to Hirose Seishi, chief priest at Shorinzan Darumaji temple in Takasaki, the Daruma dolls that brought luck to their owners must be burned right after the new year.
"When we burn the Daruma dolls, they turn into ash and are returned to the earth," Seishi said in a phone interview. "The act of changing your Daruma each year is related to renewing your heart and making fresh goals."
But Daruma dolls are changing with the times. They can now be found sporting contemporary designs, like polka dots, or painted with modern clothing.
And while artisans traditionally painted the dolls red, a color associated with good fortune, these lucky charms now come in various different shades, from pink (symbolizing love) to green (representing good health). New colors and designs have emerged in response to the changing tastes of the today's market, according to Nakata.
"These days, Daruma dolls are found in different colors as that gives people more choice," he said. "It's better to select a Daruma color that you like, as you'll cherish it more."
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