To some people, Gunma (群馬) is only a prefecture you go through to get to somewhere else. To others, it’s purely an onsen spot. Yet, Gunma is so much more than hot springs and highways. It is an untapped treasure steeped in history and most importantly, it is home to the fabled Daruma (達磨)!
A Daruma is a hollow and round traditional papier-mâché doll. Often red in color, it is modeled after the Bodhidharma – the founder of Zen Buddhism. The design of its eyebrows is in the form of a crane (a bird very sacred in Japanese mythology) and its facial hair in the form of a tortoise (a symbol of long life and wisdom).
Darumas, often bought at the beginning of the year (although they can be bought throughout the year), are a symbol of luck and are used as a focal point for prayer. Some people use different kanji / colored Darumas for different types of prayer – childbirth, romance, work, study – but traditionalists maintain that any Daruma can be used for any request, as long as the worshipper’s heart is pure.
When you see a Daruma in the shops, you will notice that its eyes are blank. Kaigen, the opening of the Daruma’s eye, is very significant. The left eye is filled in once you choose your prayer point (signifying an opening of your mind to the goal you want to achieve). The right eye is filled once the prayer has been answered. Darumas should be placed in clear view of people, allowing the owner to reflect on their prayer constantly.
We have limited information about the Bodhidharma. We know he was an Indian monk in the 5th or 6th century who achieved enlightenment at a very young age. He traveled to China to spread Buddhist teachings and was received by Emperor Wu, who was surprised at his young age and frame (ragged after his journey from India). He trained with the monks in Shaolin which led to the creation of the famous Shaolin fighting style. Being non-Chinese, he was labeled by some as the enlightened barbarian and was known to be a little bad tempered.
However, his most significant achievement was to introduce Zen (Dhyan / meditation) to China and Japan. Legend says that he would meditate in the mountain caves for years – staring at the wall, trying not to fall asleep. One night he fell asleep and was so angry that he cut off his eyelids, which became the first tea plant in China. Zen Buddhism has played a pivotal role in Japan’s spiritual development.
Takasaki (高崎), Gunma’s largest city, is a comfortable two-hour train ride from Tokyo by rapid, or 30 minutes by Shinkansen. The first generation of Takasaki dolls started 200 years ago with a farmer named Tomogoro Yamagata (山県朋五郎) who made Darumas during the winter season. However, another story is that the Daruma started at the request of Priest Togaku from the Shorinzan Darumaji temple who wanted new charms for his parishioners and taught local farmers how to make Darumas as an extra source of income.
Whatever the origin, the dolls were a huge success and became a symbol for the region. Today, Takasaki produces around 78% of Japan’s Daruma dolls, with Shorinzan Darumaji being the center of Daruma prayer. While the prime attractions of Shorinzan Darumaji are the Darumas, the small museum, and, if you are lucky, seeing the monks make these colorful pieces of art, the temple is also a place to worship the river Kannon (観音川) and has an Obaku Zen school (黄檗禅).
The temple, which was established in 1697, can be accessed via a steep set of stairs from the main road. A bus stop is nearby, or you can walk from Takasaki Station for 30 to 40 minutes.
The temple is surrounded by nature and makes for a pleasant exploration. It has two levels. The Daruma museum, main prayer site, and the shop are on the second level. The temple comes alive in January for the Daruma-Ichi (だるま市), a 24-hour event where locally made Darumas are sold, prayers for peace are offered, and pathways are covered with stalls. The culmination of this festival is the burning of last year’s Darumas – their ashes rising to heaven, giving thanks for answered prayers.
No Gunma Daruma tour is complete without visiting Daimonya (大門屋), a factory located on the other side of the river, across Shorinzan Darumaji. Here you can buy Darumas in a variety of sizes and colors. Prices are reasonable and the factory is like a mini-museum, with old photographs, historical information, and images of grateful Daruma fans (including a former American president).
However, the main attraction of the factory is the opportunity to “design” your own Daruma. It’s a wonderful experience and makes for a great personalized souvenir.
Before the activity, you get a quick explanation about Darumas and a few minutes to select your own 12-centimeter tall doll. Then, into the factory for a demonstration by the president of Daimonya, Junichi Nakata (中田純一). A traditional craftsman, he shows you how to paint Daruma eyebrows and facial hair. After that, you are given a brush and allowed to create your masterpiece. The master then checks your work and seals it in an official factory bag.
The whole experience takes about 30 minutes and costs 800 yen including the doll, which is a great value. I selected a green Daruma, and while my artwork did not really match Nakata’s instructions, I was still very happy with the result!
There you have it, the world of Daruma within the beautiful City of Takasaki. It’s a history that a few Japanese people know about and yet, the Daruma is one of the most iconic images of Japan. So take a journey to Takasaki and enjoy!