In Japanese, the word for snowman is yuki daruma. While many language learners and even native-born Japanese themselves might not think to question why a snowman in English is known as a snow daruma in Japanese, these paintings from the Edo period (1603-1807) reveal the secret history of the word and a fascinating tradition of snow-making that was somehow lost along the way.


So what exactly is a daruma? Known throughout Japan as good luck toys, daruma are commonly bought from Buddhist temples and placed in homes by those wanting some spiritual help to achieve their goals. They come in a variety of colours and sizes, but the most common ones are red with gold-painted Chinese characters, like the one above.


These papier mâché dolls have a fascinating history which can be traced back to a 6th Century Buddhist monk called Bodhidharma. It was said that his nine years of constant seated meditation left him with atrophied legs, which became the idea behind the round shape of the doll. Today, people who need a bit of Bodhidharma’s perseverance and strength without the pain of atrophy can opt to buy a daruma doll instead.


Since daruma today have a cute and rotund doll-like quality to them, the word yuki daruma for snowman seems to make a whole lot of sense. These woodblock prints, however, show that snowmen once really existed in daruma form.

The 1855 woodblock print above, by famed artist Hirokage Utagawa, shows an offering of food on the daruma, suggesting that these snow sculptures were revered with a sense of holy dignity, much like the red papier mâché dolls that exist today.


Another instance here, by Eizan Kikukawa (1787 – 1867) shows how common these snow figures must have been, with fancy folk not even stopping to bat an eye at the daruma in their midst.


This gorgeous painting, by Kuniyoshi Utagawa (1797 – 1861) shows how the yuki daruma were decorated: with charcoal lumps for eyes, and black ink drawn on for the moustaches and eyebrows.


A glimpse into traditional snow daruma-making techniques. The lady in the middle uses a simple snow shovel made from a curved plank of wood and rope.


The picture above is from “the world’s first novel,” The Tale of Genji. Ancient tale, enormous snowball.

The Edo period coincided with the Little Ice Age, a period of cooling that followed the Medieval period, dumping record snowfalls around the world. With many theorists predicting another Little Ice Age from 2014, it might not be long before the snow daruma rises again!

Source: Matome Naver
Image: Sakura and Zen