Awashima Shrine doll festival

No, it's not a Viking funeral, it's just Girls Day.

The Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri) is celebrated every year on March 3. Many Japanese families with young girls display hina ningyo (doll festival dolls) in their homes. The dolls represent the imperial court and traditionally were a means of expressing reverence for the emperor and bringing good luck to girls.
Doll sets can be very expensive and it's considered bad luck to throw away old or damaged dolls. Instead people often take and leave them at shrines.

Awashima Shrine is one of these shrines. The shrine was founded in the 3rd century. The Empress Jinmu's ship was caught in a storm and prayed for rescue. She eventually made it safely to shore. As thanks for her rescue she dedicated a shrine to a local god (a medicine god associated with fertility). In the fourth century the shrine was moved to its present location in Kada in Wakayama.

Every year Awashima Shrine celebrates the doll festival by holding a special event known as nagashi bina (floating doll). Young girls from the neighbourhood are chosen to put hina matsuri dolls into wooden boats. A large crowd gathers to watch this process and then the boats are carried down to a nearby jetty. Only women are supposed to carry the boats. Visiting women are encouraged to join in the crowd carrying the boats.
A priest blesses the dolls and then they are taken out to sea. Lots of local schoolgirls wave goodbye to the dolls. The idea behind this ritual was that any illnesses girls had would be transferred to the dolls and then sent away.

It's worth staying around after the end of the main ceremony, as the wooden boats are brought back into land around the corner from the main jetty. Then the boats are doused in gas and set alight. It's a strange experience watching boatloads of burning dolls.

The festival starts from 12 noon and television crews come to cover the event. This year the festival will be held on a Sunday. As it will be more crowded than usual, it's worth getting there earlier, especially if you want to have a look around the shrine.

The shrine is also famous for its large collection of dolls of all kinds. There are hundreds of maneki neko (beckoning cats), tanuki, daruma and hina matsuri dolls. It's a great place to take photos and is still worth visiting, even if you miss the doll festival.

The shrine is also associated with fertility, so it's popular with women who want to get pregnant. A common practice is for women to place their panties in a plastic bag and attach the bag to the prayer board. This offering is supposed to help women get pregnant.

Text & photos: Aidan Doyle

Getting There: Take the Nankai line to Kada station. From Namba it takes about two hours. The shrine is a 10-minute-walk from the station.

Originally published in Kansai Scene, March 2009