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New Year hails new beginnings and good intentions; in Japan, a handy little Daruma doll helps you on your way bringing good luck in the year ahead. Sales team leader, Anna, peeks behind the scenes of New Year traditions in Japan.
Good luck and good eats: Kawagoe Daruma Market at Kita-in Temple
The New Year is one of the most important holidays in Japan, but it’s celebrated in a very different way to most foreign visitors. Many shops, restaurants, and sightseeing spots close as families gather together to spend this important time with loved ones. Tourists can be at a loss, but there is still a lot to do!
There are many large public events that give an insight into Japanese tradition around the holiday. Best of all, anyone can participate! The most common is Hatsumode (first temple visit of the New Year) where many Japanese people visit at the stroke of midnight to pray and start the New Year right. Others stay up to see the first sunrise, putting value on the good fortune the new day brings. Most commonly, people will visit shrines and temples in the first few days of the New Year.
Different temples celebrate in different ways; some will ring bells at midnight, others have parades, and many sell good luck charms to religious visitors during the first few days of the New Year.
Daruma figures and rituals
One of the most iconic items sold are the Daruma figures. Daruma is a strange little character based on the historical figure of Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. He usually takes the form of a bright red round hollow figure, reminiscent of a Russian nesting doll. Every New Year, many Japanese people purchase one for good luck in the months head.
Similar to a New Year’s resolution, the owner of the Daruma will make a vow that they hope to fulfil in the upcoming year. Daruma dolls come without eyes; when someone makes the vow, he or she fills in one eye, promising to give Daruma the other once the vow has been fulfilled. Once the following year comes to a close, everyone returns to the temple with their old Daruma (wishes fulfilled or not) to be burned in a huge pyre of renewal. Then they will then get a new Daruma and start all over again.
Kawagoe City and the Edo style
One of the best places to experience these markets is a lovely historical town in Tokyo’s suburbs, Kawagoe. Kawagoe City is home to Koedo or “Little Edo”; it is one of the few places in the Tokyo metro area where you can still see original Edo-style buildings. You really get a sense of what the capital may have looked like a hundred years ago. Koedo has been designated a historical area and is home to lovingly restored historical temples and a warehouse district. There is also “Penny Candy Lane”; one can sample an abundance of traditional Japanese snacks and sweets, and enjoy Japanese street foods every day of the year.
For those with more grown-up tastes, there is local Kawagoe sake to try, or a pint of the local red sweet potato based craft beer (aptly named “Coedo Beer”). Kawagoe also has a bustling shopping street complete with everything from vintage American clothing to the hottest Harajuku trends.
Kawagoe’s Daruma festival – Kita-in
Beyond the appeal of the usual sights and sounds of this eclectic little town, 3rd January marks the date of Kawagoe’s Daruma festival. Like all Japanese festivals, it is full of people and delicious food and drinks; including anything from octopus balls and giant baked potatoes, to savoury pancakes, hot sweet sake (non-alcoholic) and sugary sweets. This one is located at Kita-in Temple – one of the largest temples in Kawagoe – where Daruma is centre stage. You will find it full of locals coming to make their first prayers of the New Year; many line up outside the temple gates to get their chance.
Kawagoe’s Kita-in becomes a formidable Daruma market once every year, with thousands of Daruma dolls filling every corner of the temple grounds. If you don’t intend to make prayers, you can bypass the crowds and head straight into the market. The dolls come in all shapes and sizes – from the width of a fingertip, to those bigger than one person could carry comfortably.
Takasaki in Gunma
The area with the largest Daruma production is Takasaki in Gunma, a bit farther north of Tokyo; many dolls in Kita-in and festivals all over Japan will come from here. While wandering the stalls, one will often find similar figurines in the shape of the animal associated with the upcoming year (in the Chinese calendar). Maneki Neko, or Lucky Cats, is another favourite good luck symbol in Japan. They all tend to be made of plaster and are not meant to last forever, despite the beautiful craftsmanship and gold leaf.
At first glance Daruma dolls look the same, but upon closer inspection it’s easy to see that each shop and manufacturer has a different style. Choose carefully when picking out which will help you with your New Year’s resolutions. If you’re lucky, perhaps your Daruma will not only earn his second eye, but also help you find your way back to the market next year.
Kawagoe is located about an hour north of central Tokyo, and Kita-in temple is located close to the historical district; it’s a great stop off during a trip to the charming Edo-period town. Contact our team to get planning, and Happy New Year!