Yo, a little funky daruma talisman in aquamarine and a touch of disco glitter. Quite a character!

Blue Daruma with Hearts of Gold

Yay, it’s already Tuesday! PingMag MAKE day! Have a look at our sister’s lovely report on Daruma: This very part of Japanese folk art emerged in the Edo period and, since then, the little dolls are used as pretty popular talismans. Typical daruma are bright red, and they come with either just one eye painted in, or both eyes left unpainted. How come? One eye is painted when a wish is made, and the other is completed when it is achieved. But prepare for the daruma MAKE found in Sendai that are a psychedelic blue, with bulging painted eyes and furry eyebrows… PingMag MAKE visited a family who creates daruma since ten generations (!) and spoke with Naoko Hongo of the Hongo Daruma-ya shop about its ongoing mystery.

Written by Takafumi Suzuki
Translated by Claire Tanaka

We understand that Kesano Hongo, the previous head of Hongo Daruma-ya shop, passed away recently. Please accept my sympathies.

Yes, thank you. Grandma made daruma for sixty years, ever since she came into the family as a bride, but at age 83 she left us. When she died, we had to start thinking about where we want to go with our work from here on. When we realized how many people depend on Matsukawa daruma, we began to feel we had no choice but to continue making them. (laughs)

The finished daruma are placed on a shelf near the ceiling to dry.

Do you think there is some kind of spirit in the daruma which is passed down from your ancestors?

Our family has been making daruma since the Edo period, about 170 years ago. Grandma Kesano was the ninth generation, so that makes us the tenth. Matsukawa daruma began with Toyonoshin Matsukawa, a feudal retainer of the Sendai Han, and after that, it was carried on by the samurai of the domain as a home industry. The eyebrows are made of real hair, the head is ultramarine blue, and on the stomach are images like a treasure ship, a god of luck, or lucky symbols like pine, bamboo, and plum. The daruma comes with the eyes already painted in so that he can watch over everything. Date Masamune, who was the lord of Sendai when Matsukawa daruma were first made, was a flamboyant, one-eyed man, and they say his wishes were embodied in this style of daruma.

Painting the grimacing mouth…

… and a lucky treasure boat on the belly! They say this is good for luck with money

The paint has a very wet quality.

I imagine that Grandma Kesano also had a very strong connection to the daruma?

She always said that it was thanks to the daruma that she had been able to come so far in life, and every day she expressed her gratitude as she made them. She always used to say, “I can’t let the line of daruma-makers end with me.” It was the karmic connection she had to the world through daruma. Grandma was protected by that through her life.

A karmic connection…

Well, Grandma would be sitting like this in the workshop, and people passing by would come in and say “How are you doing, Grandma?” and it wasn’t just other elderly people either. Young people, children, everyone would come in to say hello. People would come from all over the country just to meet her. She valued the connections she had with people. The strangest thing that happened was the moment she died, and directly after she died, people with a connection to her naturally gathered together.

The old Hongo Daruma shop.

Family cooperation has always been at the heart of the business.

What exactly happened?

For example, at the hospital. The doctor who took care of her had bought one of her daruma when he had gone to write the national exam. Both the acupuncture doctor and the psychiatrist owned one of her daruma and used it as a personal grounding point. A television announcer who came to the hospital was surprised to hear her name announced over the PA there. That announcer had come to learn how to paint from Grandma when he was still a new recruit. Everyone in the family agreed, “Everyone was called by the daruma to come and give their last respects to our Grandma.”

That is quite strange.

People who have bought the daruma have had strange things happen to them too. Every year, we get mountains of letters in thanks. People who weren’t able to have children and were blessed with a child, people who were able to find a good marriage partner, companies which were about to go under but managed to recover, people who passed their university entrance examinations, and so on and so forth. We get these reports back from people and it gives us a sense of duty that pushes us to keep plugging away, little by little. (laughs) We can’t bring ourselves to charge too much so we’ll never get rich by making daruma, though.

Fat eyebrows, a grimacing mouth, and both eyes already painted in. It’s got a lucky vibe!

A whole daruma clan.

Have the two of you, the tenth generation, always been making daruma?

Yes, I was always helping out as Grandma’s assistant. And Dad (my husband) here, he’s her son, so he’s been helping out ever since he was a child. He’s been working outside of the home ever since he finished school, so he comes and helps out here when he has time. But, even now, I still depend on Grandma. When I’m working, I feel like she is watching me, and I find myself talking to her, “Now, how does this step go again?” (laughs)

What is the toughest part about making daruma?

Getting the colors right, and doing the painting is the hardest part. Matsukawa daruma have changed, ever so slightly, over the generations. That’s because our materials have changed over the years. For example, we would no longer be able get the paint we used to use or we’d have switch to using hide glue, things like that. Sometimes I think to myself “This isn’t quite right” and I go to a customer’s house and borrow an old Matsukawa daruma of theirs and use it as a model. That’s why the customers are also a big part of keeping the Matsukawa daruma tradition alive.

This is how the eyeballs are made…

… and it’s Hisataka’s job to paint in the eyes.

Sounds like Matsukawa daruma are well-loved by everyone.

Now, most of the daruma are sold to tourists as souvenirs, or people buy them on New Year’s Eve for good luck. I think the most important thing for us to do is just to put our hearts into each daruma we make, and work with a sense of gratitude. But what worries me is that we won’t be able to be as good as Grandma was with customers and the media. With Grandma, she’d talk up a storm when the media came. She’d get her hair done at the salon, sit up straight, and look right at the camera and give a big smile. Of course normally she was working, day in day out, making daruma for everyone. I can’t imitate her, but I feel I have to learn from her example. We have a good strong family because Grandma was such a grand daruma craftswoman, and she brought the magic of the daruma into our home. Isn’t that right, Dad?

The Hongo Daruma shop in Miyagi. Address: Kashiwagi 137, Aoba-ku, Sendai, Miyagi.
Naoko (left) and Hisataka Hongo. Born in 1952 and respectively in 1948, they represent the 10th generation of Matsukawa daruma artisans at Hongo Daruma-ya.
  • Badger

    The old sepia photos are so good!

  • Jiayi

    Wished I knew about these furry-eye browed darumas before I came back to the US. Would’ve been nice to own one that is different from your usual red ones ^_^

  • Kaddo

    This article made me feel even more interested about the Japanese tradition.Thanks a lot for keeping us in touch with this fantastic country!

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    I own a couple of red Darumas myself, but I’ve never seen a blue one indeed.

    Great read and interview. :]

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