Japanese Festivals: The Tokorozawa Doll Memorial Celebration 人形供養祭
Burning the Dolls 所沢埼玉県
by Johannes Schonherr
Tokorozawa, today a Tokyo suburb just beyond the city line in Saitama Prefecture has traditionally been one of the centers of Japanese doll manufacturing. Here, a good part of the dolls are made that get displayed at Japanese homes all over the country at traditional Japanese childhood celebration days like Girl's Day (March 3rd) and Boy's Day (May 5th). Those dolls are usually hand-made from natural materials like cotton and wood. Every traditional Japanese family owns big sets of them.
All children the world over have their favorite dolls. They keep them close all year round, cuddle them and over time those dolls become confidants to the children. In the early childhood days, they have been the only ones who could understand what the toddler is talking, later on they are the only ones who could understand all the troubles that inevitably arise when growing up. They don't talk back. They understand. They take on a precious soul of their own.
In Japan, the role of the dolls is even more rigorously defined. They watch the children growing up, they protect them. In the case of an accident or illness, the dolls will suck up all the bad arising from the situation, greatly helping the child to recover.
But life goes on and eventually childhood ends. The dolls will be put somewhere into a remote corner of the house. Eventually the question will arise how to discard them.
The dolls loaded with childhood memories, packed with imagined answers to all the pressing questions while growing up, the dolls to cry to late at night in bed after the grown-ups couldn't understand the real emotions triggering the tears of childhood over and over again - these most precious friends of those sweet but troubled days - where should they go?
Twice a week, Tokorozawa city takes the burnable garbage of every household to the incinerator. But would you put your childhood memories next to orange peel and rotten yoghurt, the garbage bags possibly being ripped open by hungry crows?
It would be quite a heartless thing to do, wouldn't it? So were to put those precious dolls at the end of their life?
Shinmeisha Shinto Shrine in central Tokorozawa is one of the rare places in Japan that offers a solution, combining it with an impressive ceremony.
There, on every first Sunday in June, the Ningyo Kuyosai (Doll Memorial Celebration) takes place. It's a ceremony designed to honorably depart from those beloved dolls, to give them a final arigato while saying sayonara. It is meant for all the dolls of all the Kanto region.
In fact, you can go to the Shinmeisha on every day during the year and hand your dolls in. You pay a small fee and the shrine will take care of your dolls. In every year, they receive about 3,000 dolls. Only the most beautiful and traditional will be chosen for the June celebration. But some of the strangest / most oversized, too.
Doll Memorial Celebration
Arriving at the shrine on that special Sunday morning, you will see a big pyre of heavy logs with traditional Japanese dolls placed on them has already been prepared in the center of the shrine yard. To the right is a stage and it is decorated with hundreds of dolls - both traditional Japanese and modern, Western style ones like Hello Kitty, Teddy Bear and other Disney characters. Big signs read "Many thanks to you dolls." Traditional or not, those dolls all helped their owners a great deal to get through childhood and to grow up.
To the left is a makeshift counter and there you can any hand in any doll you want. The dolls will be noted and you will receive a paper slip containing the name of your doll. The soul of the doll thus is transferred to the paper slip which you can place into a wooden box at the pyre. Burning the slip with your doll's name on it will do the same service as ceremonially burning the doll itself.
Dance of the Miko-san, Shinmeisha Shrine
The dolls then get separated. Traditional Japanese dolls will go to a sort of exhibition space right next to the reception counter while all the Hello Kitty, Teddy Bear, Snoopy and so on will get unceremoniously dumped into a Tokorozawa city garbage container out of sight. It doesn't matter. By now, the paper slip has taken over the soul of the doll. It will go into the fire and the soul of the doll will thus go to heaven no matter its origin.
In the past, people could just bring their dolls and throw them into the fire by themselves. But today, the number of dolls would just too big for a fire like that. Also, most modern dolls are made of plastic - and you can't burn huge amounts of plastic in the middle of a residential area. Environmental laws are strict and force even ancient religious ceremonies to adapt.
At 11am, two miko-san, shrine girls in white robes, do a dance on the stage decorated with dolls to ancient Shinto music.
Then, the high priest of the shrine will bless the dolls, come on the stage and give a speech, thanking the dolls for their invaluable services while calming their souls.
The head priest then lights the pyre with a torch. It erupts in flames. Two men with water hoses keep the flames in check.
Slowly, the beautiful old dolls on the pyre are engulfed by the flames. The wonderful dresses of the small princesses light up in the red and yellow of final glory while their shiny black hair curls up in the heat.
Their demure faces remain unchanged until they are finally consumed by the fierce lick of the fire. Small samurai soldiers heroically hold their swords upright while their bodies crumble to dust. May they find peace in Shinto heaven.
The pyre is burning, Shinmeisha Shrine
Shinmeisha Shrine Address: Tokorozawa, Miyamoto-cho 1-2-4
Phone: 04-2922-3919 (in Japanese)
Access: Seibu Shinjuku Line to either Tokorozawa Station or Kokukoen Station / Seibu Ikebukuro Line to Tokorozawa Station. Walk from there. It takes about 15mins from Tokorozawa Station to the shrine.
Doll memorial ceremony: every first Sunday in June, starting at 11am.
Dolls for collection are accepted every day during business hours. A small fee is charged.
Shinmeisha Shrine website: www.shinmeisha.or.jp/index.html (in Japanese). Good information on the shrine. Unfortunately, the location map provided by the website is confusing and not helpful at all.
Google map of Shinmeisha Shrine