In early February each year, crowds flock to Nishi-Arai Daishi Temple in northern Tokyo for the ceremonial burning of the daruma. A traditional Japanese doll modeled after the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, daruma are both a symbol of good luck and a talisman to help people achieve their resolutions for the year. Once the goal or wish has been realized, the spent daruma are collected at a temple and set aflame to release the spirit within, in a ritual known as the ‘daruma kuyo’.
Purification by fire
There are a few different ways to handle a daruma once a hope or wish has been granted. The first step is to fill in the blank eye. Every daruma begins with two blank eyes, and when the doll is purchased and a wish is made, one of the eyes—typically the left—is filled in while the other remains blank as a reminder for the wisher to do their part in striving toward their goal. When both eyes are filled in, the daruma is then retired.
Some people keep the retired daruma as a good omen, displaying it on their shelf alongside a new one-eyed doll. Many more people opt to bring the daruma back to the temple where they purchased it in order for the doll to be burned in a daruma kuyo ceremony. With their iconic round faces and two blank eyes filled in, the daruma are mounted on a special pyre called a takiage, where they are purified by fire while a monk chants Buddhist sutras and their spirits are released back to the heavens.
Even if a wish hasn’t been granted or a goal fulfilled, it is traditional to burn the daruma at the end of the year and purchase a new one. In doing so, it’s believed that the fate of one’s wish will then be linked to the new doll.
The history of the ritual at Nishi-Arai Daishi Temple
The daruma kuyo at Nishi-Arai Daishi Temple started in 1954 and is one of the biggest daruma-burning ceremonies in all of Japan. Daruma are typically burned on January 15 along with New Year’s decorations and the past year’s mamori amulets. However, at Nishi-Arai Daishi Temple the ritual is combined with Setsubun festivities, a holiday that takes place on February 3 to celebrate the day before the start of spring according to the old lunar calendar—a sort of ancient New Year’s Eve.
How to participate
Take your spent daruma to Nishi-Arai Daishi Temple, where there will be a special area set aside for receiving the dolls. Most people take their daruma at the beginning of the new year; however, Nishi-Arai Daishi Temple accepts daruma all year round. There will also be a separation collection box beside the daruma reception area in which to place a small donation to the temple for the purification rites.
On February 3, the daruma kuyo ritual begins with the blowing of a great conch shell, followed by the entrance of the Buddhist monks. One unique aspect of the daruma kuyo at Nishi-Arai Daishi Temple is that the Buddhist monks are led by yamabushi—mountain monks who practice Shugendo, the Japanese folk religion that combines Shinto and Buddhism.
The Buddhist monks recite their sutras as the yamabushi set fire to the daruma. The flames of the takiage can grow several meters high, which makes for quite the spectacle, and the fire is kept burning until all of the pyre burns down to ash.
The fire department remains on standby, of course, to prevent the fire from spreading out of control.
Afterwards, visitors can buy new daruma for the coming year and also participate in other Setsubun traditions such as mamemaki (bean throwing).
The daruma kuyo ceremony takes place annually on February 3, starting at 11:30 a.m. with Setsubun festivities to follow from 3:30 p.m. Large crowds attend every year, so it’s best to arrive early.
The temple is a five-minute walk from Daishimae Station on the Tobu Daishi Line.