An annual Japanese tradition where monks ceremonially burn a giant pit of good-luck dolls in Tokyo
Along with the maneki-neko cat statues you may well have seen across Asia, another instantly recognisable good-luck charm in Japan is the daruma – a hollow, round-shaped doll, typically depicting a bearded man, Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. When sold, both eyes of the doll are typically left blank. The owner colours in one eye once they have made a goal for the year, and then the remaining eye once the goal has been achieved.
After one year, whether you achieve your goal or not, it is tradition to take the doll back to the temple from which it was purchased in order for it to be burned. This is to draw a line under the year that has passed, and start afresh for the coming one ahead. One of the most renowned of these events – Daruma Kuyo – happens once a year within the grounds of Nishi-Arai Temple in northeastern Tokyo, where a giant pit of daruma dolls is ceremonially burned – their large eyes bulging as they are engulfed by the flames.
With snow still on the ground at the start of February, I made the trip out to Nishi-Arai to witness the burning for myself – rubbing shoulders with monks in traditional garb, elderly camera hobbyists and firemen who were on standby in case the fire got out of control. At about 11:15am, 15 minutes before the burn was due to start, a number of monks in colourful robes slowly entered the temple grounds in procession, chanting sutras and blowing horns made from large sea shells.
As is the case at all these ceremonies, the crowd remained deathly silent – watching on as two senior monks lit torches from ceremonial candles and then proceeded to set the pit on fire. The heat coming off the fire was intense, with firefighters having to soak the sides of the huge metal barrier that had been constructed around the pit. The monks continued to chant – the sounds interspersed with those of flames crackling and daruma dolls exploding under the heat.
Despite the festival having positive connotations of purification, rebirth and renewal, I personally couldn’t help but feel a sense of uneasiness watching the dolls’ faces go up in flames – especially those with only one eye. The owners of these dolls had obviously not achieved the goals they had set for themselves, and so it was as if their efforts were also going up in flames.
Daruma, however, are a symbol of hope. The dolls have weights at the bottom, so when they fall down they automatically bob back up again, symbolising perseverance and the ability to overcome adversity. The Japanese phrase ‘nana korobi yaoki‘ literally means ‘fall seven times, rise up eight’ and comes from the notion of daruma bouncing back despite hardship. It’s the English equivalent of the phrase ‘if you don’t succeed, try and try again.’
And so, as thousands of daruma continued to burn on that cold Saturday afternoon in Tokyo, the ashes left behind symbolised the end of an old chapter and the beginning of a new.