For any of you who are joining the story a little late – don’t worry. You can find all the catchup you need right here.
When embracing a different culture, it is important to open yourself up to everything it has to offer. Of course, while I believe that it’s good to step outside your comfort zone on occasion, it’s also important not to stretch yourself too far as you risk losing the appreciation through fear or obligation rather than willing surrender. Some cultural aspects can be intimidating; luckily, Takayama offers one that is almost too kawaii (cute) to bear!
After having settled into our regal accommodations, Dad and I once again put foot to pavement and made our exploratory way around the town of Takayama. There were some familiar sights, albeit different in their own way from those that we’d seen before. Given our interest in the more traditional side of Japanese culture, we headed purposefully toward the old town district, hoping to take in more of the wonderful architecture and atmosphere that defined 16th century Japan.
As we expected, our eyes fell upon some wonderful traditional architecture. Stone-paved roads led us past various buildings containing sake vendors, local cuisine sellers and even ninja warrior weapons and armour. All were housed in traditional timber structures with ornate tile roofs and although some minor modernising had occurred, the transformative effect remained as we slowly wandered back in time.
Being true explorers intent on making discoveries, we noticed an appealing building and bowed our heads through the entryway curtain. The door had been wide open and this was a store built for tourism however (and now that I think of it, due to that specific fact) it was in this store that we made perhaps one of the most significant cultural finds of our safari. The shop was outfitted with all the standard fare – sake, plum wines, confectionery and other gifts for friends and family. There were local handicrafts including t-shirts and traditional Japanese kimonos, but one thing drew our attention as we began to notice its dominance.
Image source: Wikipedia
A faceless, cartoon-looking character adorned an array of items in the store. The red figure had a form similar to a human and was clothed as such, but had no discernible features such as fingers or toes. It was on the labels of biscuits, candy and other small gift items that are found at almost every train station in Japan. We wondered about its origins and what it meant; obviously there was some significance to it but at that stage we resigned ourselves to ignorance and continued our exploration.
Our wandering soon brought us into another handicrafts store where our initial brush with the little red doll escalated into a fully fledged cultural immersion experience. The store had an entire section dedicated to the little doll and the exposure we had in our initial contact fell into insignificance as we stood facing a wall of dolls ranging from the size of a key chain to standing toe to toe with a Cabbage Patch kid. Naturally, we had to know what this doll was about! And so we learned, through my own half-translated interpretation of the symbols and the fortunate placement of English signage, that this doll had a name: Sarubobo.
Sarubobo literally means baby monkey. On its own that is cute enough, but the story of Sarubobo is really quite something. Traditionally crafted by grandmothers for their daughters and grandchildren, these charms were passed down to bless their children and grandchildren with protection from bad things, happiness in the home and relationships and an easy delivery during childbirth. The colour of the charm is important as well as we discovered – red is the traditional colour of the doll as it reflects the colour of a baby monkey’s face (a fact I cannot qualify, having never seen a baby monkey’s face. I am going to accept this as truth because seriously, who wants to pull apart something so lovely?).
With the Japanese being as generous and kind as they are, the traditional Sarubobo has extended herself (I refer to Sarubobo in the feminine sense only due to her origins; the charm is not actually gender defined) over the years to encompass a great variety of well-wishing. You can now find Sarubobo of different colours, each designating a particular wish or blessing for the recipient:
Blue will bring luck for someone in their study or work;
Pink is a blessing for love;
Yellow will aid in money matters;
Green emphasises good health;
Orange holds energy for strong families;
Black will ward off bad luck.
Some people may find the facelessness of Sarubobo to be a little disconcerting but this too is easily explained. If you’re a cold, hard facts person I can tell you that facial features were absent due to the doll being made from cloth scraps with accuracy being an afterthought, not a focal point.
The way I prefer to look at Sarubobo’s featureless visage is the same as many who give and receive the charm – her facial canvas is blank so that whenever you look at her, you can imagine Sarubobo’s expression yourself. Just like life, she may not always be smiling, but she will always be there to bring you luck.
Do you know of any other interesting cultural charms like Sarubobo? What colour would you like to receive from me?