The Intriguing Sarubobo Dolls of Gifu and Their Meanings

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  • Have you ever seen these dolls during your travels in Japan? I’m sure that you have come across these faceless dolls at some point.

    These are sarubobo dolls. Sarubobo dolls are faceless human like figures that are mainly red but come in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes.

    Where can you find them?

    These faceless dolls are the mascots for the Hida region of Japan. The Hida region includes the Northern part of Gifu which is infamous for their quiet mountains and natural hot springs. These dolls can be seen all over: at every shop, or sometimes outside restaurants especially in the Takayama region.

    The meaning

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    Author’s photo

    The word “Saru” literally means “monkey” and “bobo” is what people in the region of Takayama call a “baby”. Sarubobo literally means a monkey baby. Traditionally these dolls were made as a charm and given as good fortune to someone very important to you. Many grandmothers would make these dolls and give them to their grandchildren as an omen to bring good fortune in life.

    The deeper meaning

    “SARU” could also mean to leave, which will help protect the owner from bad things.
    Another belief is that the sarubobo will bring you a happy home and help you to find a good match. These dolls is also believed to help women with an easy childbirth. It is common for Monkeys to have an easy delivery so this is the hope of many women. Traditionally sarubobo are red to symbolize the connection to monkey’s, as the face of baby monkeys is usually red.

    Meaning in colors

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    Author’s photo

    Though sarubobo are traditionally red, nowadays they come in all different shapes, colors and sizes. Each color now has a different meaning and is advertised as the souvenir for someone important or someone that you care about, making it suitable for men and women.

    What do all the colors mean?

    Red = Marriage and family. It brings good marriage, easy birth and good growth of children.
    Gold = Money and success. It helps cultivate talent and skill. It increases economic fortune and protects against bad luck.
    Yellow = Money and gambling. It brings luck in gambling, lotteries, and financial success.
    Pink = Love. It is believed to help you meet someone. But if you already have someone or are married it will help your relationship to go well.
    Blue = Study or Job. It is said to bring a sense of calmness to improve concentration.
    Green = Peace and Health. This one promotes good health and prevents sickness.
    Purple = Longevity and Success. It brings success in all aspects of life, and a healthy, long life.
    Black = Protection from evil. This guards against evil of any sort.

    Sarubobo dolls are great gifts for anyone and represent a traditional part of the culture in the Hida region. Not only are they easy to find in the Hida area, but they also come in all different shapes and sizes, but they are also believed to bring good fortune. Even if you aren’t a fan of the dolls themselves, there are many sarubobo snacks and cakes to enjoy from this area.

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    1. David Cadiz-Hasegawa says:

      Definitely a place to visit if you are planning to travel to Japan!

      I took my mother to Takayama as a way to complete part of her “bucket list” and found it to be a quaint, quiet, and inviting little city/town to visit. We spent three days and two nights visiting Takayama (and checking out Shirakawa-go) to see the old-type villages and housing areas. Both places are well worth the one-and-a-half hour trip from Nagoya Station.

      The cultural aspect of Takayama is as interesting as almost any other large metropolitan city in Japan. Historically, its a place used as a travel center for rulers traveling from Kanazawa City to Tokyo (or Kyoto).

      As a traveling “tourist”, I enjoyed the small town/city atmosphere and found it quite relaxing. The ultimate areas to check include the Hida Folk Village, Sanmachi (Old Town), Nakabashi Bridge (which includes the open market area, and Takayama Jinya. A short 1-hour trip to Shirakawa-go is also a “must” to do.

      We stayed at the Hanasatonogoyu [Takayama] Ouan Hotel which allowed a view of the main part of Takayama from its public onsens on the top floor. Not to mention there were also three private onsens that could be used (with a 30-minute limit when busy).

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