Anyone who knows me knows that I love getting my hands messy. I’ve always really enjoyed art and creating things, so I was extremely pleased to find out that I’d be painting a daruma as part of my business trip to Shirakawa City, Fukushima Prefecture.
Daruma are a traditional craft with its origins rooted strongly in Buddhism. The word daruma seems to have come from the Buddhist word “dharma”, which expresses the concept of the Buddhist teachings, and is often used to talk about Buddhist priests in Japan.
Japanese daruma are often round in shape, with a face painted a different colour to the outside. One other distinctive feature of daruma is that you usually see them without eyes.
The reason for this is that when you buy (or make) a daruma, you buy it with no eyes. As you are colouring in the left eye, you are supposed to set yourself a goal, or make a wish. When, and only when, that goal or aspiration is realised may you paint in the right-hand eye.
If you like the Studio Ghiblio film “Spirited Away” you may recognise daruma due to similarities in their similar shape and facial expression to the bouncing heads that guard one of the rooms in the magical bath house.
Whilst I was in Shirakawa, my colleague and I googled the origin of daruma, and why they have such stern expressions. The answer was a bit ambigious but the stern face is supposed to represent a priest in a state of meditation. The eyes have a bit more of a gross history…. So I’ll leave that to you to google!
One thing that I didn’t realise before going to paint my own daruma in Shirakawa City was that many areas in Japan have their own specific daruma designs. Shirakawa City is, in fact, one of these areas.
The aspects that set the Shirakawa Daruma apart from others is the decorative elements of the face. The eyebrows are the shape of cranes, and the moustache is made up of two turtles gazing at each other. The squiggly shapes on the cheeks of the daruma represent plum and pine trees. The beard is thought to resemble bamboo shoots. All of these are traditional symbols of good luck in Japan.
Although this design is what makes a traditional Shirakawa Daruma, Watanabe Daruma, the workshop that I visited in Shirakawa City, makes all styles and designs of daruma, as they receive orders from all over the country, as well as from abroad.
One of the main places that they sell their daruma to are shrines and temples across Japan, which made me wonder, how many daruma I have seen across Japan around religious centres which have actually been made here in this workshop.
When it comes to painting experiences, 1 hour is long enough to design the face of a daruma which has already had the base colours painted on. This is what I did during my visit.
But those who wish to create their own unique design are able to, if they have more time to spare! Due to having to wait for the base colours to dry, visitors would have to make two visits to the store, but I think it’s well worth it in order to design something like the daruma below! I’ll have to come back at another to create my own unique design.
Myself and my colleague designed the faces of our daruma in stages, starting with the mouth, moving on to the black ink facial hair and eye, and finishing with the gold decorations on the outside, including the 福 kanji, which means “luck”. (Incidentally this is the first kanji symbol of Fukushima 福島). There was plenty of newspaper that we could use to practice the strokes on before committing to the actual body of the daruma.
This painting experience was so fun, and I was really pleased with the outcome. My daruma is currently sitting on my desk in the office.
After finishing painting our daruma, we went downstairs to the workshop whilst we were waiting for the daruma to dry a little. I had the chance to speak to one of the main artists who works here, and learned a little more about the history and tradition of daruma painting in Shirakawa City.
As a prefecture which famously gets a lot of snow during the winter, daruma-making was first thought of as a livelihood due to the inability to do any work outside during the winter time. During the summer local families would do farming and manual work, and in the winter they would spend time creating daruma to sell during the spring.
Even now, the painting of daruma are usually left until the autumn and winter months due to the humidity and heat of the summers meaning that the paint dries unevenly. However, the hot, humid Japanese summers are very useful for one other part of the daruma-creating process – the base.
The bases which are entirely made of paper (similar to papier-maché) take an extremely long time to dry in the colder months, so the summer climate creates perfect conditions for making lots of bases in preparation for the autumn.
In order to create the base coat for the daruma, they are placed on sticks and dipped in paint. Then the stick that they are on is wedged into a post so that they can air dry evenly.
Next the face colour is painted on. After that is dried, then the whites of the eyes!
I was a bit surprised to hear that it is only the women of the house who make the daruma who are sold all around the country, especially seeing as we were instructed on designing our daruma by the son of the household! He explained that while men do the manual labour involved with moving and selling the daruma, the women control the creative aspect of the process.
I had a really wonderful time painting my own daruma, and I thoroughly recommend you try it. Watanabe san of Watanabe Daruma also let me know that he would be happy to advise visitors on how to paint their own daruma in English! Here is a link to their website and their Facebook.
Although I only had time to visit Watanabe Daruma during my trip this time, I must point out that there is one more daruma workshop in Shirakawa City where you can try out painting daruma. This workshop is called Sagawa Daruma Main Shop, so please check out their website as well.
Shirakawa City is full of wonderful places to visit. I’ll be uploading more posts about Shirakawa soon, but for the time being, take a look at a possible route you could explore during a day trip to Shirakawa City. Please click on it for more details, including access from Tokyo!