On Daruma DollsTokyo, Spring 2013

A little over a year ago I visited Japantown in Los Angeles searching for one thing: a red Daruma doll. They were surprisingly hard to come by. A lot of the dolls stocked by the stores were yellow, pink, white, purple–no red ones, oddly. But I refused to settle for less. The red ones were iconic, and I wasn’t going to stop trying until I found one.

I love Daruma dolls. I love their quirky paint jobs and staring eyes; I especially love the mythos and tradition behind them. Daruma dolls are based on the legends of Bodhidharma, the red-cloaked first zen master, who is said to have sat facing a wall and meditating for nine years. During that time his legs atrophied, and he ripped off his eyelids to prevent himself from sleeping. Okay, yeah, it’s kind of a gross legend (limb loss seems to be a common occurrence in zen stories), but you can’t deny the man’s mad determination to reach enlightenment.

Daruma dolls are, accordingly, symbols of determination. Just like their namesake, they have unblinking eyes and legless bodies. When you first buy them, they actually don’t have eyes at all–you paint in one eye when you set a goal for yourself, and you paint in he other when you finally achieve that goal. That way, whenever you look at that one-eyed Daruma doll, it reminds you to keep working towards that goal.

I finally did find a red Daruma doll in Japantown. It was made of porcelain (most Daruma dolls are made of wood) and had a bell inside, but it had ready-to-paint blank eyes. I bought it in a heartbeat.

Just over a year ago, I had no idea what the future had in store for me. Application deadlines were nothing more than a harmless calendar mark several months away. I knew I wanted to go to Japan, that was for absolute certain. But at the time, aside from being a year and a half into my Japanese studies, I had done next to nothing to reach that end. So, I took up a sharpie and drew in my Daruma’s right eye.

“I will paint in your other eye in Japan.”

That was the promise I made to it.

Now here we are with less than a month counting down to the start of the spring program in Tokyo. All my applications, fees, and forms are in, my visa is pending, and I have plane tickets to a country I’ve dreamed of visiting for years and years. I probably could have gotten all that done by my own efforts, but I like to think that a lot of it was thanks to my little Daruma doll, eyeing me from the corner of my desk as a master watches a novice. I am a natural procrastinator, so seeing him staring at me with his one-eyed gaze reminded me at every turn that I still had work to do.

Now every time I look at him, I think:

“Soon you will be able to see.”

 

I don’t really have pictures to share with you (you came here to read about Japan, not the boring couple of months I just had at home, am I right?) so instead I’ll give a brief introduction of the friends I’ll be bringing along on my journey. You’ll probably see a lot of Masamune, but you might be seeing some of these guys around too!

“What are you all looking forward to most?”

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. I am working on a study in my folklore class at The Ohio State University. I chose to focus on the Daruma good luck doll for my project. I work at Honda in the Research and Development field, and recently we have obtained a Daruma doll from Japan for good luck and focus on a large project. I am interested in getting interviews and personal stories of what the doll means to individuals, as well as how, where, and when the dolls began being used as good luck charms. If you are interested in helping me out that would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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