A (non-hikaru) dorodango

Children, I have observed, seem to have an innate affinity for dirt. No matter how recently a parent has dressed the child in freshly laundered clothes, no matter how carefully the parent has attempted to keep the child geographically separated from any substance that might soil or stain, it is just not possible to keep a child clean for more than 60 seconds. I use the word “affinity” advisedly, because it implies not merely a liking, or a preference, but a chemical attraction. Kids clearly have a talent for finding dirt, but also, dirt finds them. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. Eventually, having spent a sum equivalent to your monthly grocery budget on moist towelettes, you give up on keeping the child perpetually clean and set a new, lower but potentially reachable standard of not-entirely-covered-with-mud.

Mud, of course, is that particular species of dirt that children seem to find most fascinating (and which apparently finds them fascinating as well). As far as kids are concerned, mud is cool because it’s gooey and squishy and feels neat and adheres very effectively to your sister’s dress when flung from across the yard. Grown-ups find mud icky for exactly the same reasons, and dried mud, well, that’s somehow an even greater insult to cleanliness—it’s just so…unsightly. Among the words not commonly associated with mud are smooth, shiny, and beautiful. But that’s changing now, thanks to the renaissance of a traditional Japanese art form known as dorodango, shiny mud balls (or, more specifically, hikaru dorodango, ultra-glossy mud balls). Parents are now not only actively encouraging their kids to play in the mud, they’re getting their own hands dirty too as they spend hours refining ordinary dirt into elegant sculptures.

Putting the Shine On

It seems odd to think of mud as something that could become shiny or even smooth. Polished rocks are one thing, but mud wouldn’t seem to be hard enough or dense enough to be polished. With the right technique and a lot of patience, however, it can be.

The full procedure has numerous important details, but essentially the idea is this. You start with a lump of mud, squeeze most of the water out of it, and slowly and gently add layers of ever-finer dry dirt on top, all the while shaping into as perfect a sphere as you can and smoothing off any rough spots or irregularities. Over a period of hours, as the ball dries and you continue refining the surface, a hard shell (or “capsule”) forms on the outside. If you’ve executed the procedure just so and timed it correctly, this surface can be buffed to a high gloss with an ordinary rag.

The result should be an orb about the size of a billiard ball, and just as shiny; its color depends on the kind of soil used, but can vary from nearly white, through yellow, red, and brown, to nearly black, with subtle shadings that make it look more like a fine marble carving than what was recently a mixture of dirt and water.

Having a Ball

In recent years, the art of dorodango has enjoyed a surge in popularity—first in Japan, and more recently in the United States. The renewed interest is largely due to the work of a developmental psychologist at the Kyoto University of Education named Fumio Kayo. Kayo developed a simple method of making dorodango that could be taught even to young children, and besides keeping them occupied quietly for long periods of time, this activity enabled Kayo to study aspects of children’s play that had gone largely unnoticed, and which have interesting implications for his academic work. One of Kayo’s most striking observations was that children invariably become deeply attached to the mud balls they’ve spent so many hours creating, even if they’re misshapen or otherwise flawed. (Not a surprise to me: I knew that kids get attached to mud, or vice versa.) Adults who have tried the procedure have reported similar feelings.

Children who spend their afternoons making dorodango do, I’m afraid, end up with dirty hands and clothes. But they also have a stunning work of art to show for it, and that’s got to count for something. I have yet to try dorodango myself, but I love the idea that you can make something so beautiful with three ingredients (dirt, water, and a rag) that virtually anyone in the world can obtain for free. As any child knows, mud is one of life’s simple pleasures.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on August 1, 2007.

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