Creepy or Cute? The Dolls of Awashima Shrine

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 Soul of a Doll

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.

rows of hina dolls in pretty kimono at awashima shrine
Ichimatsu dolls at Awashima Shrine

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.

small island covered in trees and surrounded by blue water
Awashime Shrine originally sat on this small island off of Tomogashima. Part of the shrine is still there.

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.

Getting to Awashima Shrine

Kada Station is the closest station to Awashima Shrine. From Namba Station, take the Nankai main line to Wakayama-shi Station. Then, switch to the Nakai Kada Line and ride the train to the final stop, Kada. From Kada Station, it’s a 20 minute walk to the shrine.

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Center map
Traffic
Bicycling
Transit

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.

Shrine Grounds

While perhaps not the biggest shrine, there was a regular flow of people coming and going.

vermilion torii of Awashima Shrine behind a takoyaki stand
Shrine entrnace

Right away, you will  notice the collection of Ichimatsu dolls around the shrine. According to their website, Awashima has somewhere around 20,000 dolls! 

rows of Japanese hina dolls of the vernda of Awashima Shrine
Dolls lining the hondo

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.

rows of dolls around honden of awashima shrine
They aren’t creepy, no not at all.

Awashima Shrine enshrines Sukunahikona, Oonamuchi and Empress Jingu.

bright vermilion haiden of Awashima Shrine

Inside the honden, the are special hina dolls from the Edo Period.

old hina matsuri dolls in Awashima Shrine
Edo Period Hina dolls

Next to the shrine’s office is part of the mast from the Kinokuniya Bunzaemon, a ship owed by extremely wealthy merchants who brought tangerines from Wakayama to Edo.

vermilion wooden post once part of ship, the Kinokuniya Bunzaemon
Mast of the Kinokuniya Bunzaemon

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.

dozen of maneki neko statues among the leaf litter on the shrine grounds of Awashima Shrine
Maneki neko

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!

two rows of old hakata dolls of Kuroda Bushi on the ground of Awashima Shrine
Kuroda Bushi Hakata dolls

Sacred Frogs

brown ceramic frogs covered in green leafy vines near Awashima ShrineYou 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.rows of ceramic frogs stack on top of one another and two very large rusty frog statues

A Shrine for Women’s Health

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.

Awashima shrine's small shinto shrine for women covered in ema and bunches of raindow colored paper cranes
Small shrine for women’s health and fertility behind the hondo.

 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.

Awashima Shrine

Address  118 Kada, Wakayama,
Wakayama Prefecture 〒 640-0103
Website http://www.kada.jp/awashima/
Hours of Operation Mon-Sun
9:00-17:00
Admisson  Free

Awashima Shrine is undoubtedly an interesting place to visit. Even though Awashima has sister shrines all over Japan, this is the only one that collects dolls. If you are thinking about taking a trip to nearby Tomogashima, this is an especially interesting stop! In fact, while we’re on that topic…

Coming next time,
It’s off to Tomogashima Island!

The adventure continues…

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