¥1640 and nearly three hours after leaving my hostel in Akihabara I found myself in Takasaki, about 100km north of Tokyo. I got onto the Takasaki Line from Ueno pretty easily, I’d been in Tokyo for already two weeks and was getting better at not getting lost in stations.
Most people take day-trips to Nikko or Hakone from Tokyo, but after somehow finding out that Takasaki is the hometown of the Daruma doll, I couldn’t stand to return home without a Daruma of my own.
Although getting to Takasaki was easy, I had to take a bus to get to the different sightseeing spots. There were very few buses in Takasaki so I had to cut down the number of places I could go to in order to adjust to the timetable.
The problem was figuring out which bus I had to take to get to each place, I had to ask many people before finding out. I started off with the Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple since the whole reason I was going to Takasaki to begin with was for the Daruma.
The Daruma doll or dharma doll is a hollow round traditional Japanese doll modelled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. These dolls, though typically red, can come in all sizes and colours depending on the artist. Usually considered a toy, daruma dolls are also used as a talisman for good luck.
You might see daruma dolls with no eyes, only one eye or both eyes drawn. This is because the daruma doll is sold with no eyes and you draw the first (usually its left one, though I’ve seen some with only its right eye painted) as you ask for a wish. At the end of the year, if the wish has been achieved, you draw the second eye.
At the start of the year you’re supposed to bring the doll back to the temple where you bought it. There is a ceremony called daruma kuyô, basically a traditional burning ceremony where hundreds of dolls are burned together after giving thanks to the daruma, whether they have both eyes or simply one. I don’t think I’ll be returning my doll to the temple since it’ll probably be years before I go there again, although I’d like to be there at the start of the year when in January they celebrate the largest Daruma market in Japan where you can buy dolls or leave your Daruma from the year before.
The temple has a main gate right next to the bus stop, followed by lots of steps. The steps are crossed by multiple smaller paths leading to and around the gardens, but if you just go straight up the steps you’ll find the main temple grounds. Apart from the temple itself there is a shop where I bought my daruma (there were some that were huge in size, but they were pretty expensive and wouldn’t even fit in my suitcase!) and also a small one-room daruma museum that was interesting -and free-.
I didn’t take many photos of the temple itself since there was a group of business men there and I was going to wait until they left, but then a group of ladies found me and were very excited to see an outsider visiting the temple so I talked with them for a good ten minutes before excusing myself. Another nice woman from a small café next to the temple ran out to give me a pamphlet in English once she saw me.
The temple’s gardens were extremely beautiful and I think I spent nearly an hour walking around though they were very small. There is also a small building (know as senshintei) designed by architect Bruno Taut.
There is another smaller train station in Takasaki about fifteen minutes walk from the temple called Gumma-Yawata Station, the owners of the shop gave me a map. I had to run since I only had twenty minutes until the next train left (apparently there are few trains a day) and I got lost. Luckily I came across a girl who was also heading to the station and I walked with her. She had my same name too!
After visiting Shorinzan and making my way back to Takasaki Station, I set off to reach the next sight of the day: Byakue Daikannon. I went to the tourist office to ask which bus I had to get to go to the giant Kannon statue, and the lady there said there was one leaving in five minutes.
So off I hurried to the bus and managed to get there just in time. The statue is in the opposite direction from the temple, so I got a different landscape this time. You can see the giant Kannon statue from very far away, and it’s exciting to see as you get closer.
Leading to the Kannon there is a street of souvenirs. Most of them were closed, perhaps because there weren’t any visitors other than myself, but it was still nice to walk around. As I reached the statue they told me I could go inside it (for a fee), since it’s hollow inside. So I did, I started climbing up many stairs winding around inside the giant statue until I reached her shoulders, looking at many paintings and smaller statues along the way.
Back down again, at the temple next to the statue I bought my first omamori. I’d seen them at other temples and didn’t know what they were, and since I’m not religious I didn’t feel like I was allowed to buy one. Since there was nobody else that could contribute to my embarrassment, I decided to buy one and research what it was once I got back home. I chose a yellow one simply because it’s my favourite colour and today I still have it hanging from my keys. Later I realised it was lucky I chose one that gave general luck instead of luck for childbirth or something.
Back at the bus stop, I saw a map of the area and saw that there were some caves further along. So I walked along the road for about 20 minutes, getting lost a few times, and indeed made it to a cave.
A woman was at the entrance selling tickets to go inside, and she told me the price was 800yen. I, however, didn’t understand. 800 in Japanese is ‘hapyaku’, while following the logic of the Japanese counting system I had forgotten the irregular number and was expecting ‘hachi hyaku’ instead. In the end I gave up on the coins and gave her a 1000yen note. The entrance fee also included an entry to a Japanese garden next door that I hadn’t heard about.
The cave had 34 different statues hidden in the dark, and it was pretty cold inside. It was fun to walk around and it was a bit mysterious since I was alone with the echo. The garden was much nicer than the couple I’d seen in Tokyo and a man sweeping leaves gave me an impromptu tour of the place.
I walked back up to the road to the initial bus stop. On the bus I talked to an English guy who’s living in Japan since his wife is Japanese. I arrived at the train station just in time for a train back to Tokyo, and got a good seat for the 2hour ride home.
I would love to go back to Takasaki one day. There are more things to do in the area that I didn’t know existed because of my poor planning (it was, after all, only my first trip to Japan and I had no experience using buses, as well as no Japanese skills). But I hope to stop by on another trip since I remember Takasaki fondly.