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When you wish upon a…monk?

I don’t know about you, but this year has given me a lot more respect for luck than I used to have.

If 2020 had a spirit animal

In Japan, people are a lot more comfortable with acknowledging that stuff we can’t control—aka Fate—plays a huge part in determining the course of our lives. But, of course, they still try to influence it.

And the easiest way to get your heart’s desire is to wish on a sixth-century monk.

Daruma figure and ink painting of Bodhidharma the monk
Yes, these roly-poly Daruma wishing figures are actually based on a real guy—”Daruma” is short for “Bodhidharma”—the monk who brought Zen Buddhism to China.

The real Daruma was apparently a fairly irascible fellow (with a legendary beard), and the reason Daruma figures look the way they do is because his impressive feats of spiritual practice include meditating for nine years in a cave (so his limbs finally just dropped off from disuse), and being so annoyed with himself for falling asleep for a few hours of those nine years that he cut off his eyelids (seems a tad severe, but that does explain the scary staring eyeballs Daruma figures always have).

Despite this slightly gruesome history, Daruma figures are all about hoping GOOD things will happen, so a more cheerful feature is that they’re weighted, so they can’t be tipped over. Daruma might get knocked down, but he never fails to pop right back up.

Daruma figures with CUZCO logo
Wishing Darumas start with blank eyes (these were being given away by the Cuzco company at an auto show)…
Daruma figure in front of temple gate
…and the way you ask Daruma for help is to color in one of his eyes after wishing for what you want…
Daruma figure with both eyes colored in
…then, when your dream comes true, you color in the other one.
Daruma figure covered with cherry blossom washi paper
He’s so recognizable as a wish-granter that you can buy them everywhere, in all shapes and sizes and colors. This one is sold during cherry blossom season and is still pretty traditional…
Daruma figures at the Setagaya Boroichi flea market
But the variations on the Daruma theme at the legendary Setagaya Boroichi flea market include everything from fruit to Goth to cats…
Rockabilly Daruma figure
There’s a rockabilly Daruma
Daruma figure
A drunken Daruma
Daruma figure mascot of Kanazawa city
A grand, golden, city mascot Daruma
Daruma figure with creepy Micky Mouse features
A slightly creepy Micky Mouse X Daruma
Softbank shiba Daruma figure
A Softbank phone company shiba-Daruma
Monchicchi monkey Daruma figures
And my favorites, the Monchhichi monkey Darumas
Daruma figure gachapon vending machine
They’re sold everywhere, even in vending machines (OK, I admit I’m totally lusting after that tanuki Daruma in the upper right!)
Daruma figures on quilt
And you can even guarantee yourself lucky dreams when you sleep beneath this Daruma-bedizened quilt!
Sign prohibiting Daruma figures from being burned in Meiji Shrine new year's bonfire
They are sacred figures, though, and can’t just be thrown away after your wish is granted. This sign prohibits them from being cremated at a new year’s shrine bonfire (which makes sense, when you know that shrines are Shinto, and Daruma is a Buddhist saint)—they have to be honorably disposed of at a Buddhist funerary ceremony

Daruma isn’t the only way to put a thumb on the balance scale of Fate, though—you can also tie a rope around Saint Bondage or visit the Jizo figure that only grants wishes that are one word long.

And if you’re desperate for a little fresh escapist reading, I’m giving away copies of this all-new, not-for-sale Yumi & Kenji short!

Author Jonelle Patrick holding It Was You paperback

Japanagram is my free monthly newsletter, and if you become a subscriber before September 1st, 2020 you’ll get a free downloadable ebook of the new It Was You Only In Tokyo Short (79 pp) and ten lucky winners will get a signed paperback copy!

Click on the Get Japanagram button, sign up, (don’t worry, it’s free!) and the September Japanagram will deliver your very own It Was You ebook, an announcement of the paperback winners, and, of course, all the quirky Japan-centric feature stories you’ll only see in Japanagram.

When you join, you’ll be automatically entered to win the monthly book giveaway, get directions to a fabulous Beyond Tokyo destination, learn to make a Japanese home cooking dish & more!

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly newsletter Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Jonelle Patrick View All

Writing mystery books set in Tokyo is mostly what I do, but I also blog about the odd stuff I see every day in Japan. I'm a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Institute in Tokyo, and a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. When I'm not in Tokyo, I live in San Francisco. I also host a travel site called The Tokyo Guide I Wish I'd Had, so if you're headed to Japan and want to check out the places I take my friends when they're in town, take a look!

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