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Saturday, Feb. 14, 2004

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My lazy old one-eyed 'daruma' doll


You're going to rot on that island!" said Mr. High Mountain (Takayama) over the phone.

I admit I had noticed an unusual body odor lately -- a possible sign of decay.

"Come to Mihara this weekend and I'll show you a 4.3-by-3.5-meter 'daruma' doll, one of the biggest in Japan."

Daruma dolls -- bright red roly-poly figures that can be seen all over Japan -- are not typical dolls. They're made from plaster and are distinctly male, with painted-on facial hair. They are legless and armless and, to add insult to injury, eyeless. They are modeled after the Bodhi Dharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, who meditated for so long -- nine years -- that he lost use of his legs and arms.

When you buy a daruma doll, you make a wish and draw in one of his eyes. When your wish comes true, you draw in the other eye. Or should I say, if your wish comes true. I've had a one-eyed daruma for 11 years. I wondered if I might be able to buy a new daruma to replace my old lazy one, who obviously isn't interested in making my dreams come true.

So I left my island of 800 people to join 200,000 others at the Shinmei-ichi Festival on the second weekend of February in Mihara, a town on the Seto Inland Sea in Hiroshima Prefecture. The tradition of buying darumas at this annual festival is over 400 years old. At least the festival is that old. I didn't actually see any people buying darumas. As a matter of fact, among the hundreds of streetstalls, I only saw a few selling darumas.

The streets of Mihara were jammed with people. The large 180-kg daruma sat on a platform above the main street, watching over the festival. Within two minutes of entering the street, Mr. High Mountain yelled, "Okonomiyaki!" and we and some other Japanese friends were suddenly standing under a tent eating okonomiyaki.

Then, I spotted the darumas. There were all sizes sitting on tiered shelves, ranging in price from 500 yen to 10,000 yen. I decided to ask the man selling them about my unlucky daruma.

"You have to change them every year!" he scolded me. So that explained why my lazy one-eyed daruma doll and I were not seeing eye to eye.

"When I buy another one, what do I do with the old one?" I asked.

"Take it to a shrine, temple or other sacred place where they collect them and dispose of them honorably."

I wanted to buy a new one then, but I could hear my friends yelling, "Amy, come quickly -- 'jakoten!' " as if it were the most unbelievable thing in the world. There was a long line of people waiting in front of the jakoten stall.

After eating this fish on a stick, we continued through the streets, while Mr. High Mountain stopped to buy a blueberry tree and a lemon tree. A few hundred meters later someone yelled, "Octopus leg tempura!" and we ducked into a tent and were soon masticating fried octopus legs.

Throughout the day, we bought more plants, navel oranges, souvenirs -- everything but a daruma. Just when I spotted another daruma stall, someone screeched gleefully "Oden!" and on cue, everyone dove into the oden foodstall. In a makeshift room in the back, we sat around a kerosene heater that had a pot of boiling oden on top. It was a welcome shelter from the cold, windy weather outside.

By the time we were ready to leave the festival, I too had completely forgotten about buying a daruma.

As a matter of fact, I believe it was me who, just at the exit gasped "Udon!" and we were soon eating steamy hot bowls of noodles.

One Dollar Books on Japan: www.mooooshop.com/MooooBooks/order


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