Ask any Japanese person about a souvenir to get from Takayama in Gifu prefecture, and top on the list would be sarubobo dolls.
Literally translated to ‘baby monkey’ (saru is Japanese for monkey, while bobo is a local dialect for baby), these featureless, human-shaped dolls usually come in red, with a tiny black hat and vest. While I couldn’t find any explanation on its origins, the dolls are traditionally made by grandmothers for their grandchildren, or by mothers for their daughters as a good luck charm.
Why Are They Red?
Baby monkeys have red faces, and since these are supposed to be baby monkey dolls, sarubobo have similar crimson hues. Although in modern times, this has extended to include various other shades, including pink, blue, green, yellow, orange and purple.
Sarubobo As Charms
The sarubobo acts like an amulet that protects the receiver from bad things, encourages a happy home and a good match for the daughters. Since a monkey’s childbirth is easy, the doll also represents the giver’s hope that the receiver will have an easy delivery.
We were scheduled for a sarubobo-making class with a local crafts maker. Unfortunately I didn’t note down the name of the place, but it was a souvenir centre where visitors can also buy snacks and gifts.
Our sensei for the day! Mariko-san translated for us.
To be honest, it wasn’t so much a doll-making class than it was a doll-decorating session, since the dolls were already provided: all we had to do was decorate and help put on the vest!
Even so, it was not as easy as it seemed. We were given some colourful pens and a selection of words to pick from, which we had to draw on the fabric. The words were traditional kanji (adopted from Chinese characters) so there were many strokes, and we couldn’t mess up so there were a few practice runs on normal paper. You can also choose to draw on the fabric but since its small, it might be difficult if you don’t have a delicate hand.
The session took about 40 minutes, after which we could take the medium-sized dolls home as souvenirs! So if you’re looking for a gift to bring back from Takayama, definitely get a sarubobo doll. 🙂