Dorodango author Bruce Gardner shares the story of how he discovered the Japanese art of hikaru dorodango. Read on to learn more about this calming practice and how to get started making your own.
Hi there, this is Bruce Gardner. I am out of Albuquerque, New Mexico and my strange superpower is: I am very good at making mud balls, aka hikaru dorodango. I’m taking over the Laurence King blog today to introduce my new book, Dorodango: The Japanese Art of Making Mud Balls.
Photography by Buck the Cubicle
Coming from the words doro, meaning “mud” and dango, a type of Japanese flour cake, hikaru dorodango consists of forming a mud ball by hand. Layers of increasingly fine dirt are added to the surface over the space of days to a point at which the dorodango can be polished to a high sheen (hikaru means “shining”).
No one seems to know precisely when or where this art form originated, but it is generally understood to have begun as a playground activity among Japanese schoolchildren.
Coming from the words doro, meaning “mud” and dango, a type of Japanese flour cake, hikaru dorodango consists of forming a mud ball by hand.
I was introduced to hikaru dorodango by a William Gibson essay in Tate Magazine, way back in 2002. I was immediately bowled over by the idea of creating art from such a humble material; I have been creating mud balls ever since.
Here is an image of a few of my pieces that illustrate the scope of colour and texture that is possible with soil gathered from different locations (various parts of New Mexico, in this case).
I have been creating dorodango for seventeen years. During that time, I have noticed that I tend to be more prolific when I am stressed out.
The process of creating hikaru dorodango is very conducive to flow: There is a repetitive quality to the work but it is still challenging as the dorodango changes, one minute to the next. Your mind remains engaged but you’re disconnected from everything else. Hours can easily slip by this way.
The art takes on greater dimensions if the soil is already important to you. Some of the most interesting emails I have received over the years come from people creating dorodango from soil they have a special connection to.
Your mind remains engaged but you’re disconnected from everything else. Hours can easily slip by this way.
Different soils present different challenges, and I always need to adjust my technique in some way to accommodate them. However, the basic steps remain the same.
Create the mud
It’s easiest to mix mud in a plastic tub, if you have one. Start by pouring about 1 cup of water into the tub. Next, slowly add your dirt to the water, mixing as you do so. Keep doing this until you sneak up on a consistency similar to cookie dough.
Create the core
When your mud has reached the right consistency, grab a handful of mud and begin shaping (roughly) into a sphere. I have found the easiest diameter to work with is one close to the width of your hand.
One of my favourite dirt sources is decomposed red granite from the foot of the Sandia Mountains, New Mexico.
Different soils present different challenges.
The first two steps of creating the mud and starting a basic mud ball is about as far as most of us got as children.
The next step is where things start to get interesting; it’s the point at which my workshop attendees really get into the activity. Their regular mud ball suddenly transforms into something else and they’re surprised to find that they care about it!
Create the capsule
Grab handfuls of dry dirt and pour it over the surface of the mud ball as you rotate it. The outside curve of your thumb is naturally suited for sweeping the surface and rounding the ball as you go.
Rest the mud ball
Store it in a bag at the first sign of a crack and wait 30 minutes or so. Repeat this cycle until the mud ball reaches a stable state where cracks no longer form.
The ball will start to retain its shape as you work; this is due to the thickening layer of clay that is collecting on the surface. This is where the mud ball transforms into dorodango.
Their regular mud ball suddenly transforms into something else and they’re surprised to find that they care about it!
Weirdly, you’re now emotionally invested in a mud ball! If you stopped right here, it would already be a pretty cool object. The best is yet to come.
When the dirt you pour on the sphere leaves just a thin dust on the surface, you’re ready to begin the next stage of creating the shell. The dorodango shell is the layer of very fine particles that ultimately give dorodango their brilliant sheen.
(Did I mention that you should definitely be wearing a dust mask through these steps if you’re working inside?!)
Creating the shell
Create the shell by running your hands through the dry dirt and (gently) patting the dust onto the surface of the ball. Rotate with each application to ensure even coverage. I try to prolong this stage of the process as long as I can – the thicker you can make this layer, the better. As before, store the dorodango in a plastic bag when you’re not working on it.
When the dorodango has reached a state where the dust you pat onto the surface seems like it’s no longer sticking to the surface, you’re ready to begin polishing. The dorodango can almost feel oily at this stage. This is because the surface is so smooth that it no longer has the tooth to capture the fine particles from your hands.
The image here is of a dorodango at this stage; a sweep of my finger leaves a clean streak on the surface of my dorodango. It’s ready to polish.
A sweep of my finger leaves a clean streak on the surface of my dorodango. It’s ready to polish.
Use a very soft cloth like silk or pantyhose (yes, really) to polish the surface. Keep in mind that we’re not sanding the surface – it’s not subtractive at all. It’s more like burnishing the surface by compressing fine particles of the outer shell.
Be very careful not to mar the surface if there is still a lot of moisture. Polishing will get easier and more effective as the dorodango begins to dry.
If there is a high amount of clay in your soil, it may be necessary to drag this stage out slowly. Sometimes for weeks. Dorodango created from clayey soils tend to crack as the clay shrinks during evaporation. As before, store the dorodango in a bag when you’re not working on it.
The surface is so smooth that it no longer has the tooth to capture the fine particles from your hands
Here is the book standing next to a finished piece made from the same decomposed red granite I mentioned earlier.
How sturdy are they? That varies by soil. Some would shatter like glass if you dropped them. This one would dent your hardwood floor and roll away.
I hope this inspired you to begin making your own dorodango. To finish this off, I’ve created a Spotify playlist featuring songs I enjoy listening to in my studio when making dorodango. I hope you enjoy.