Rachel standing next to a large daruma

Celebrating Japan’s Daruma Ichi Festival

Bundled in a matching stocking cap and scarf, and sporting warm woolen socks, a heavy, knee-length jacket, and durable, snow-resistant boots, I still shivered with excitement. It was early February, and I’d just arrived at the Daruma Ichi Festival in Japan’s Fukushima Province.

Vendors lined the streets on either side, preparing feasts of Japanese street food on large electric grills. Among the offerings were grilled squid on a stick, candied strawberries, and bowls of fresh octopus. I wanted to try it all.

After surveying the abundant selection of offerings, I paid an elderly Japanese woman 250 yen for my ayu on a stick and bit through the fish’s crispy skin.

“Mmm . . . delicious!” I said through the white surgical mask I was urged to wear. It was influenza season, and practically everyone was wearing masks to prevent the flu from spreading.

Rachel bundled up at the Daruma Ichi festival

“It has to do with being considerate,” said my friend Abraham, who had already lived in Japan for nearly a year, teaching English to Japanese students. “Everyone is in such close quarters here, so it’s really the polite thing to do.”

Abraham and I continued walking, passing vibrant pop-up shops peddling toys and masks of cartoon characters like the famous Pokémon character Pikachu, the über-popular cat from Hello Kitty, and Disney’s animated blue alien, Stitch.

At last, we reached a tent displaying an assortment of hollowed-out daruma dolls in different sizes and colors. Each doll was handmade out of papier-mâché and painted by Japanese artisans.

People purchase eyeless daruma dolls at the festival, celebrated throughout Japan from January to early March, and color in the right eye of the doll once they’ve made a wish or resolution for the year. After that resolution or wish comes true, the doll’s owner may color in the daruma’s left eye. Daruma dolls are talismans of good luck, intended to motivate people to keep track of and see their goals through to completion. There’s nothing sadder than a one-eyed daruma.

At the next year’s Daruma Ichi Festival, participants cast their old daruma dolls in a communal fire pit and purchase new, slightly larger daruma dolls. Children commonly start out with tiny darumas, and adults have bigger ones.

That year, I purchased my first daruma, painted traditionally in red, black, white, and gold. And I’m proud to say that it ended the year with two large, dark eyes.

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