The Daruma Doll, symbolism, toy and charm, all in one

DarumaOne thing that you might have encountered when reading about Japan or Japanese culture, is the Daruma doll: a traditional Japanese doll usually made from papier-mâché, with a weighted round bottom, and painted red with big round eyes. These doll are said to be depicting Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. The Daruma doll is also regarded as a good luck charm and a symbol of perseverance, and are also used when one wants to reach a certain goal.

The shape of the Daruma doll is a round and hollow doll, with a weight in the bottom so that it self-rights when tilted over. This has come to symbolise the ability to have success, do overcome obstacles, and to recover if you are knocked down by misfortune. Daruma is often illustrated together with the proverb “Nanakorobi Yaoki” (“seven times down, eight times up”). If any of this seems familiar, you might have read our news letter. ^_-

The reason for the Daruma dolls usual red colour is not entirely certain, but it is believed that it comes from the colour of priest’s robes. Because of the red colour, the Daruma doll was used a lot as a get-well-charm for those with smallpox. A child with smallpox, in the Edo period, was usually dressed in red robes, and the houses afflicted would be surrounded with ropes with red paper strips to warn others. However, the red colour of the Daruma was not to warn, but to appease the “god of smallpox” that people believed was behind the outbreaks. This in combination with the weighted bottom was to encourage the sick person to get well soon.

Daruma dollsWhen you buy a Daruma doll you will often find that the eyes are blank. This is used to keep track of goals or big tasks. When you buy the doll, in the beginning of a project for example, you colour in one eye. When you have reached the goal you set out for, or finished the project, you colour in the second eye as well. And while you are trying to achieve your goal, whenever you see the one-eyed Daruma, you are reminded about your goal. This practise might also be connected to “enlightenment”, as this custom has led to a phrase in Japanese that means “Both Eyes Open”, referring to attaining your goal.

Even the facial hair of the Daruma is full of symbolism. The eyebrows are said to be in the shape of a crane, and the hair on the cheek is said to resemble the shell of a tortoise, two animals that in Asian culture embody long life.

Next time you decide to quit smoking, to eat better, to save money, to do well on a test, or have a project that you want to get done, pick up a Daruma and let him help you out. And if you get knocked down, bounce back up!

Noh Theatre, precursor to Kabuki

I don’t know if you have ever been to a Kabuki show, or seen Kabuki on the TV, but almost everyone interested in Japanese culture have heard of Kabuki. There is even an old game for the Nintendo Entertainment System called “Kabuki Quantum Fighter”, where you play as a Kabuki actor, fighting his way through a digital world. You know, your normal game story line….

However, Kabuki is actually not the most traditional form of Japanese stage performance. It has taken a lot of influences from an older art form, that is still performed to this day: Noh (能, “skill, talent”).

春日神社ー篠山ー翁奉納P1011774

Noh developed from traditional popular, folk and aristocratic art forms. The art form Noh has today was essentially developed during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), under the patronage of the Ashikaga Shoguns (the first shogunate in Japanese history). Noh is primarily performed by men, and it is customary in Noh that the performers don’t rehearse together until a few days before the public appearance. This gives Noh a distinctive feel, and follows a principle that’s known as “ichi-go, ichi-e”, or “one meeting, one chance”.

One of the more amazing points of Noh is the masks (能面 noh-men, or 面 omote). Carved out from a block of Japanese Cypress, and then painted with natural pigment, these masks can be very lifelike. But the really interesting point is the fact that in different angles and different light, the same mask can portray many different expressions.

Three pictures of the same female mask showing how the expression changes with a tilting of the head. In these pictures, the mask was affixed to a wall with constant lighting, and only the camera moved.

Three pictures of the same female mask showing how the expression changes with a tilting of the head. In these pictures, the mask was affixed to a wall with constant lighting, and only the camera moved.

All performers in Noh, actors and musicians alike, all have foldable fans, which in many cases acts as stand in for any handheld weapon or tool that the character might be using at the time.

If you are interested in Noh, and it’s later cousin Kabuki, be sure to visit a play when you are in town. If you have access to a TV here in Japan, NHK sometimes send Kabuki and Noh performances. If you don’t find yourself in Japan at the moment, I am sure you can find something on YouTube as well.

Chiyoda Ward, the heart of Tokyo

The budokan, host to many concerts and Martial Arts Tournaments.

The budokan, host to many concerts and Martial Arts Tournaments.

I am sure it comes as no surprise to you that Tokyo is a BIG city, with a lot of people in it, and stretching over a big area. In order to keep it all under control, the administrative work has been divided, and the 23 Special Wards were created. In the centre of all these wards, you find Chiyoda.

Chiyoda Ward is the centre for a number of reasons. Historically, this is where the Chiyoda Castle (the other name for Edo Castle) were located, and it is from this castle that the ward got its name. Today, you still find a lot of buildings and institutions that has to do with government and foreign relation: The Diet is located here, as is the Prime Minister’s residence. You also find the Supreme court, and 15 different embassies in Chiyoda.

The Diet Building in Nagatachô

The Diet Building in Nagatachô

Chiyoda is also home to several of the famous places in Tokyo. To start with, the Imperial Palace has the address “1 Chiyoda, Chiyoda-ku”. In the Kanda Area, in the northern part of Chiyoda, you find the famous electronics district Akihabara. Hibiya Park and Kitanomaru Park (where the Budokan is) are also in this Ward.

In-between the Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace you find the Marunouchi district, which is one of Tokyo’s traditional commercial centers. North of Marunouchi is Ôtemachi, a district of key financial Japanese institutions and major national newspapers.

As you can see Chiyoda is the centre of everything from power and administration, to business and news. It truly is the heart of this big and busy city.

Yasukuni Shrine Honden building.

Yasukuni Shrine Honden building.

In-between the Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace you find the Marunouchi district, which is one of Tokyo’s traditional commercial centers. North of Marunouchi is Ôtemachi, a district of key financial Japanese institutions and major national newspapers.

To the west of the Imperial Palace, you find Hanzomon area (because it is next to the Hanzomon Gate to the Imperial Palace). In this you find offices, restaurants, and embassies. Hanzomon is also home to Cosmos Tokyo.

As you can see Chiyoda is the centre of everything from power and administration, to business and news. It truly is the heart of this big and busy city. I am sure you have passed through, and stopped by in this busy city centre, but if you haven’t then make sure you visit this ward next time you are in the area.

Cosmos Tokyo is located near Hanzomon Station on the Tokyo Metro Hanzomon Line. Take exit 3a to the west, walk down the road left of the gas station, and then turn right in the next crossing. On you right hand side you will find Glenpark Building. 
If you have any questions, or want to make an appointment, don’t hesitate to mail us on cosmos.jls@gmail.com

Booking Policy

As of June 13th, Cosmos Japanese Language School students will no longer be able to make a booking one day before the actual class.

Students must always book a class two days in advance.

If you have difficulties making bookings in advance, please consult with us. We do our best to make sure our students can easily and comfortably come in for a class.

We apologize for the inconvenience. Thank you for your understanding.

 

Kamaitachi, the three weasels that cut you

I thought it might be time for a visit into the world of Yôkai, or “Phantom”/”Spirits”. So let’s take a look at the Kamaitatchi.

If you look up the word “kamaitachi” in your dictionary, it will probably give you the following definition:
– A cut caused by a whirlwind
– A type of Japanese folkloric “monster”, thought to be a trio of weasels who appear in a whirlwind to cut their victim.

As you can see, the two definitions are related, and the word is used both for the cut you might have gotten, as well as the Yôkai that cut you. But let’s dive a bit deeper.

"Kamaitachi" (鎌鼬) from the Kyōka Hyaku Monogatari by Masasumi Ryūkansaijin

“Kamaitachi” (鎌鼬) from the Kyōka Hyaku Monogatari by Masasumi Ryūkansaijin

The word “kamaitachi” is composed of two words: “kama”, meaning sickle, and “itachi”, meaning weasel. Kamaitatchi is commonly thought of as three weasels riding on dust devils, or dust whirlwinds, and using their sickle-like nails cutting people that come in their path. Usually it is though that the first weasel cut you with its nails, the second weasel uses medicine to stop the bleeding, and the third one applies another medicine to make it hurt after a while, so that they can make their escape before one notice them.

However, there are several versions of this legend, differing in the different regions of Japan:
– In Shinetsu, kamaitatchi are seen to be the work of an evil god.
– In the Yoshio District area of the Nara Prefecture, it is said that when one gets bit by a kamaitachi invisible to the human eye, one would tumble over, even though no blood comes out, there is a big opening in the flesh.
– In the western parts of Japan, kamaitachi are called “kazakama” (風鎌, “wind sickle”), and said to slice off people’s skins, and there is no pain the instants after it is scraped off, but after a while a hard to bear pain and bleeding would start to occur, and it is said that one could protect against this by obtaining an old calendar in one’s hand

As you can see, in the old days, whenever you got a wound when out walking that you could not explain, it must have been the Kamaitachi. Or maybe they do exist, then in that case be careful out there, and keep your eyes open for weasels in the wind…

Inari, the Shinto goddess of foxes, rice and sake. 稲荷大神

If you’ve been in Japan for a while, you will most likely have visited at least one Shinto shrine. Or perhaps a Buddhist temple. (The difference is huge, but at the same time small, and will leave that for another time). Perhaps you have seen a shrine where there are foxes on pedestals infront of the actual house for the Kami, and have wondered what the deal with the foxes are? Well, one thing you can know for sure is that the shrine that you are looking at is in honor of the goddess Inari.

Inari and samurai

Inari appears to a warrior (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Inari is the Shinto goddess for foxes, fertility, rice, sake, and agriculture and industry. In earlier times, she was also the goddess of swordsmiths, and merchants. Inari has been depicted as a male, as a female, and as an androgynous god, and is usually though of as a collection of 3-5 Kamis in one. Inari’s messenger is the fox, and that’s why at least a pair of foxes decorate the path up to an Inari shrine. The pair of foxes always represent the male and the female, and they usually hold something under or between their paws, like a jewel, a key, a fox cub, or a sheaf of rice. Inari shrines also have one or more red Toriis (the wooden or stone arches that mark the entrance to a Shinto shrine).

FushimiInariTorii

Toriis at Fushimi Inari Shrine (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

It is commonly thought that foxes in Japan loves fried tofu (油揚げ “abura-age”), and since foxes are the messengers of Inari (or sometimes Inari herself), sushi with fried tofu is named Inari Sushi. You can also find Udon noodles with the fried tofu, and this dish is known as Kitsune Udon (狐うどん “fox noodles”).

So the next time you pass a shrine and see foxes in front of it, why not give a little bow to Inari for the rice, the sake, and the booming industry, all the things that makes the world go round. And then go and enjoy some Kitsune Udon, or Inari Sushi. ^_^

Japanese Calligraphy: “Shodo” 書道

"Peace", in calligraphy. Written by Oura Kanetake, in the Meji Period.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“Peace”, in calligraphy. Written by Oura Kanetake, in the Meji Period.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you are interested in Japan and Japanese, you will most likely have stumbled upon the art of Japanese Calligraphy at one point or another, in one form or another. Japanese calligraphy can be everything from slender and beautiful, to thick, coarse, and almost unreadable to the untrained eye.

The history of the Japanese Calligraphy is (almost) as old as the history of the Kanji themselves. Once the Chinese characters had started to be standardized in the Qin dynasty of China, and the ink and paper replaced the chisel and stone, calligraphy was born, and new ways of expressing yourself in writing was also born.

With the spread of Chinese culture through out Eastern Asia, calligraphy also spread to neighboring countries, such as Korea, and to Japan. This happened in the 7th century. Anyone who was anyone in those days had to be able to know how to read and write Chinese, and that included the art of calligraphy as well. (A common likeness to the Latin of Medieval Europe is often drawn.) However, after a while, the Japanese had found that the Chinese characters all that practical to write Japanese with, and they developed the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets to fill the gaps that they felt was left when only using Kanji. In the 9th and 10th centuries, a style unique to Japan started to emerge. This was not solely because of the (then) fairly new alphabets, but also a way to separate oneself from China, and from the Chinese culture. The emperor of Japan wanted to establish that Japan was it’s own country, with their own culture and style.

Shodo is a living art in modern Japan still, with companies and stores wanting their names written in different traditional styles in order to reflect either the company’s heritage, or its design or focus. You find Shodo on everything from ramen shops to Izakayas (bars).

The different styles of Shodo. From left to right: "Kaisho" regular script, "Gyôsho" semi-cursive script, "Sôsho" cursive script, "Reisho" clerical script, and "Tensho" seal script. (Photo courtesy of shodou.info)

The different styles of Shodo. From left to right: “Kaisho” regular script, “Gyôsho” semi-cursive script, “Sôsho” cursive script, “Reisho” clerical script, and “Tensho” seal script.
(Photo courtesy of shodou.info)

Next time you walk down the street, take an extra look, and see if you can see any Shodo around you. (My bet is that you will.)