Near the border of Wakayama and Osaka Prefecture the famous Awashima Shrine [淡島神社]. Why is it famous? For centuries, people from all over Japan have come to Awashima Shrine to pray for fertility, safe birth— and to donate their old dolls. The shrine is filled with thousands of dolls, some are even hundreds of years old!
The History of Awashima Shrine
According to legend, long ago Empress Jingu was journeying home from a war overseas. She got caught in a terrible storm and prayed to the gods for help. The gods answered by giving her a sign that she should drift with the current. She did as the gods instructed and thankfully arrived safely in Tomogashima. Once she got to Tomogashima she found a small shrine for Onamuchi, (aka Okuninushi) and Sukunahikona and realized that these gods were responsible for her safe delivery. The empress thanked these two gods and helped build up the shrine, ultimately creating Awashima Shrine.
However, when he grandson, Emperor Nintoku, visited Awashiama Shrine, he thought that it was inconvenient for the gods to be so far away from the main land, and decided to move it to its current location. Unfortunately, we do not know for sure what happened after that, but somehow the shrine attracted a lot of attention from many of the shoguns in Wakayama. After Hideyoshi burned down the shrine, the Asano clan rebuilt Awashima Shrine in the late Edo Period.
While perhaps not the biggest shrine, there was a regular flow of people coming and going.
Right away, you will notice the collection of Ichimatsu dolls around the shrine. According to their website, Awashima has somewhere around 20,000 dolls!
Why have so many people donated their dolls to Awashima Shrine you ask? Since Shinto believes that inanimate objects can over time develop souls, they must be properly disposed of, so that their angry spirit doesn’t curse you. At Awashima Shrine, you can donate your doll after you no longer need it. The shrine will keep the doll for a time, before properly disposing of and hold a memorial service for the doll, called kuyo [供養]. This is why there are so many dolls line every nook and cranny in Awashima Shrine.
While officially none of the doll are cursed, some people insist that the shrine is cursed. Awashima Shrine even owns a doll whose hair supposedly grows, but unfortunately, that doll is not on display. If anything, it is still kind of creepy to see all the dolls gathered together in one place.
Awashima Shrine enshrines Sukunahikona, Oonamuchi and Empress Jingu.
Awashima Shrine is a famous women’s health shrine. Around the Edo Period, many people believed one of the gods in Awashima Shrine was the wife of the Sumiyoshi Gods. Myth says she developed some gynecologic ailment she threw herself in to the sea and drifted to Awashima Shrine. Once she arrived in Awashima Shrine, the goddess decided to stay and help with women suffering from similar ailments.
Despite the popularity of this myth, today Awashima officially says any relation to women’s health is because they enshrine Sukunahikona, the god of medicine. At any rate, many women come here, specifically to pray for their health or fertility.
Dolls and Statues
After you pray at the honden, walk around the shrine and you will see just how many different kinds of dolls there are in this shrine! The shrine also has lots of porcelain figures of various animals and folklore figures like the juu-nishi, tanuki, maneki-neko, and Kintaro.
There are dolls from all over Japan! They even have a Kudoda Bushi dolls. Specifically, Kudoda Bushi dolls are popular in Kyushu since they originate from popular folk song about a Kuroda samurai who can really down his liquor!
You will also see a number of frog statues about the shrine. As a matter of fact, frogs are the messengers of Sukunahikona. For this reason, frogs are even enshrined in the Kenshi-den, which is behind the honden.
Information: Awashima Shrine
118 Kada, Wakayama, Wakayama Prefecture
Kada Station is the closest station to Awashima Shrine of Nankai Kada Line. From Kada Station, it’s a 20 minute walk to the shrine. Since the shrine is very close from the port of the boats to Tomogashima Island, many usually visit Awashima Shrine while waiting for the boat to Tomogashima.