The Guardians of Katsuoji

I’ve been to quite a few temples in Japan over the past several years, but no matter how many I visit, they will never fail to amaze me. The architecture, the composition, the structure, the minute details – everything about a temple’s design exemplifies the years of careful thought, consideration, and purpose that were interweaved into its development.

My first visit to Minoh’s Katsuoji Temple was no different than previous temple visits – in fact, Katsuoji may be one of the most beautiful I’ve been to yet, especially since I went while the maple leaves were still in color.

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IMG_9154Though Katsuoji’s elaborate gardens, freshwater streams, and its mist-shrouded lake made for an unforgettable experience, my first time visiting Minoh’s hidden gem was more memorable than past temple visits for a different reason…IMG_9105IMG_9113

The dolls…

IMG_9106I first spotted these dolls upon walking onto the main bridge, where a group of 5 were gathered along the barrier, casually surveying people as they passed by. And the dolls weren’t only beside the bridge; these little figurines were scattered all over the temple – literally, everywhere!IMG_9119There were dolls along the ground, on pillars, barriers, even in the trees. As I wandered Katsuoji’s grounds, I grew fascinated by the sheer abundance of these pint-sized, toy-like creatures.IMG_9133And so, upon arriving home, I did some research: thanks to the ever-loyal Google search engine, I not only discovered the name of these fascinating little figures, but quite a bit of interesting information on them too. Known in Japan as “Daruma dolls,” they’re traditionally modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen tradition of Buddhism. Though they are typically red in color and depict a bearded man (Dharma), each doll varies in color and design depending on the region and artist.

In fact, because each Daruma is hand painted, no two Daruma have the exact same design.

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Not only do Daruma dolls make for an adorable display, they are seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck as well! Because of their bottom-heavy design, they return to an upright position when tilted over, a characteristic that has come to symbolize the ability to overcome adversity. The doll embodies the popular Japanese proverb: Nanakorobi yaoki, or “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

Because the dolls symbolize success, they are often purchased to act as encouragement for people to continue pursuing specific goals. Upon purchasing, the doll’s eyes are both blank white; the purchaser will then select a goal and paint in one of the figure’s two eyes. Then, once the desired goal is achieved, the second eye is filled in. People often bring their dolls back to the temple where they were originally purchased and place them anywhere and everywhere – hence the hundreds of scattered Daruma dolls throughout Katsuoji. IMG_9128At the end of the year, all the Daruma are brought back to the temple they were purchased from for a traditional burning ceremony. This ceremony, called the daruma kuyō (だるま供養), is held once a year, usually right after New Year’s Day. Afterwards, people purchase new Daruma dolls to bring home for a lucky start to the year.

Sadly, I didn’t have the chance to attend a burning ceremony this year. But to be honest, I don’t think I would have enjoyed watching these little bearded dolls burst into flames anyway – they’re way too cute to be destroyed, in my opinion. IMG_9140

Now that I know the history behind the Darumas, I’m still looking forward to greeting them at my next temple visit. Hopefully, the next temple I go to will have as many Darumas as Kastuoji.

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For directions to Katsuoji temple, click here.

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