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A simple stall lines the entrance to the shrine. Like the stalls for festivals and markets, the wooden shelves are lined with traditional Japanese items and replicas for the discerning tourist. Unlike many of the items for sale, one seems too insignificant for words and yet sells very well with everyone – the daruma doll. For tourists, the doll is a cute, inexpensive and lightweight memento of Japan. For most of them, the true history and significance of this doll remains a mystery although some shops do include instructions and a very brief explanation.

Almost round in shape except for the flattened base, these simple, papier-mâché dolls painted red, with white and black markings, seem too ordinary for words. Yet the Japanese (and the tourists) buy them often in different sizes and from different places, painting in one eye and leaving them on a shelf in the hope that one day they can paint in the other eye. What is the significance of this doll?

The history
Daruma dolls are said to represent the priest Bodhidharma, a 6th century Indian priest considered the founder of Chinese Zen Buddhism. Bodhidharma is reputed to have spent 9 years meditating in a cave and praying without moving or blinking his eyes until he lost the use of his arms and legs so the daruma dolls do not have limbs or eyes. They are weighted at the base so that they do not fall over, reflecting perseverance and success after misfortune that Bodhidharma strove to promote. The red is the red of his priest robe and the name, daruma, is an abbreviated version of the priest's name.

The fantasy
New daruma do not have eyes painted on them as Bodhidharma used his inner vision rather than 'physical' sight. Instead, large white circles are painted onto the doll’s head There are two theories about daruma eyes and luck. One claims that, when you make a wish, you should paint in the left eye (the left one when you are facing the doll) and when the wish comes true you should paint in the other eye. The other claims that, you should buy a daruma when something good happens to you and paint in one eye. You paint in the other when the next lucky thing happens. You are also supposed to start with a small daruma and buy slightly larger ones each time, taking the finished daruma to a shrine where it is burnt with other daruma as an offering. This practice is particularly common at New Year where daruma purchased the previous year are burnt at shrines and a new one is purchased for the incoming year.

Daruma are often bought before exams to hope for good luck, at New Year, hoping for success and other major events and occasions. Certainly the most public displays are the enormous daruma purchased by politicians who paint in one eye before an election and then, usually on television, paint in the other eye when they have won.

In Japan there is even a common saying about daruma: "Seven times pushed over, the eighth time it rises" (Nana (7) korobi (stumble), ya (8) oki (get up)). The daruma is intended to teach dedication and persistence, to rise no matter how many times we stumble or fall - to never give up.

Whether the daruma doll actually does bring good luck or not, there is no question of its popularity. Daruma fairs are held in Japan from the end of the year to March although you will find the dolls pretty much anywhere in Japan at any time of the year. The two largest fairs are held at Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture and at Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture. So, the next time you have the opportunity, buy one and try out the luck for yourself!