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Awashima Shrine: A Creepy Resting Ground For Over 20,000 Dolls

Awashima Shrine in Wakayama

Against the gentle onshore breeze at Kada Bay, Awashima Shrine (淡島神社; Awashima-jinja) stands in silence, awaiting its next visitor. Yet, stepping onto its quiet grounds, you will hardly feel like you’re alone. 

Once you enter Awashima Shrine, you’ll be greeted by thousands of pairs of eyes – eyes belonging to unwanted dolls that have been left at the shrine for safekeeping. Put on your bravest front and venture forth – a visit to Awashima Shrine will be way more rewarding than a jaunt to Tokyo Tower, which won’t even excite your grandma.

A creepy resting ground for dolls

Doll at Awashima Shrine
Image credit: @napoleonsolo64

Japan has many superstitions surrounding dolls. Many Japanese believe that spirits can develop in inanimate objects, particularly in dolls that are human-like. If you chuck these dolls away carelessly, they will hold grudges and return as your worst nightmare.

Thus, many Japanese choose to donate their dolls to shrines for safekeeping or to have them properly disposed of through formal rituals.

Entrance of Awashima ShrineImage adapted from: @yuki_moriguchi

Awashima Shrine, home to over 20,000 dolls, is one of these shrines. In fact, it is so famous that it is nicknamed the “Shrine of the Dolls”.

Dolls left at Awashima ShrineImage credit: @BabyBoo63523692

While the dolls on open display aren’t malicious, the shrine does have a basement used for storing iwakutsuki dolls – possibly haunted dolls with complicated and dodgy origins. Unfortunately for you daredevils out there, the basement isn’t open to the public.

Awashima Shrine - Okiku Doll
Image credit: Ghost Map

It is closed for a good reason – strange occurrences involving said dolls in the basement have been reported over the years. For example, there’s a miniature doll in the basement that is similar to Okiku, the notorious Japanese doll with human hair that continues to grow. 

Around 30 years ago, the original owner discovered that the doll’s fringe had been growing. Horrified, they donated the doll to Awashima Shrine in order to get rid of it.

Now, the doll sits with its companions in the basement, preferring to be undisturbed.

The story behind these 20,000 dolls

Discarded dolls at Awashima ShrineDiscarded dolls at Awashima Shrine
Image adapted from: @diamomosaku

Nevertheless, most of the dolls at the Awashima Shrine have a pedestrian backstory – they are actually unwanted Hina dolls. Hina dolls are dolls used during Hina Matsuri, also known as “Girls’ Day”.

Awashima Shrine - Hinakazari during Girls' DayImage adapted from: @sugi_33

Every year, on 3rd March, Japanese families will prepare an altar consisting of a set of dolls and some intricate accessories. These display items are collectively known as hinakazari (雛飾り), and are used to usher in good health and happiness for the young girls in the household. The long-standing tradition has been observed since 1687.

Later on, when families decide to purchase a new set of dolls or have no more use for the old ones, they retire the dolls at the Awashima Shrine.

Awashima Shrine - Hina-nagashi on Girls' DayImage credit: My Secret Wakayama

However, not all Hina dolls will enjoy long-term residence at the Awashima Shrine. 

On Girls’ Day, the shrine performs hina-nagashi (雛流し). It is a ritual where Hina dolls are loaded onto boats and sent adrift in the river, symbolically drowning out any bad luck and evils that plague their owners.

When the ceremony ends, the Hina dolls are retrieved from the boat and will bid their farewell through rituals, in which they are set ablaze.

Awashima Shrine - Memorial services for dolls
Image credit: @spiritual.toshizo

The shrine offers to carry out 供養 (kuyou; memorial services) for the dolls, involving bonfire rituals where the dolls depart in a blaze of glory. Sometimes, the dolls may be brought out to meet their owners for one last time before undergoing the ritual.

This formal ceremony is a way to honour the dolls and their significance to the human world before their “passing”.

Figurines along Awashima ShrineImage adapted from (left to right): Kansai Odyssey, @pepapaw, @shellyinsushiland

Of course, Awashima Shrine does not only house dolls. Besides dolls, you can also find countless animal figurines, ranging from frogs to maneki neko (lucky cat), lining the grass patches outside the shrine.

Getting To Awashima Shrine

Awashima Shrine is a resting ground for 20,000 dolls, each with a unique story to tell. As you navigate through the shrine, keep your voice down and refrain from touching the dolls. After all, they are listening, and they are watching you.

Getting there: From Nankai Namba Station in central Osaka, take the Nankai Main Line to Wakayamashi Station. The trip takes 65 minutes on the express train and a one-way ticket costs ¥920 (~USD8.77).

At Wakayamashi Station, board the Nankai-Kada Line. Alight at Kada Station, which is the final stop on the line. The train trip takes around 25 minutes and costs ¥340 (~USD3.24) one-way. The shrine is located 1.6km away from the station, which will take about 20 minutes to reach on foot.

Address: 118 Kada, Wakayama City, 640-0103 Wakayama
Shrine opening hours: 9AM-5PM, Daily
Treasure hall opening hours: 9AM-4PM, Daily
Admission: Free for Awashima Shrine; ¥300 (~USD2.86) for adults and ¥200 (~USD1.89) for children to enter the treasure hall.
Telephone: 073-459-0043

For other intriguing places in Japan, check out:

Cover image adapted from: @latindance602