Where do old dolls go to rest? Ignored at the bottom of the toy box, stashed in the attic or hidden under the bed? In Japan, old and broken dolls are honoured in ceremonial cremations. The intriguing festival, or matsuri, of Ningyo Kuyo took place at the Kishimojin Shinjou-ji Temple in Kanazawa last weekend.
While dolls in Japan hold a similar place as they do in other cultures, as playthings and companions, they also have symbolic roles as protectors, talismans and carriers of bad spirits to be sent away on miniature boats.
Given the special qualities that dolls hold, according to traditional Japanese culture, they cannot be simply thrown away or abandoned. They must be given proper respect in their disposal.
During Ningyo Kuyo the dolls are blessed, comforted with religious chants and offered tea and flowers. Finally the dolls are cremated together on a large fire in front of the temple.
This matsuri takes place at many Japanese temples at different times throughout the year. There are a number of photos around the internet and more detailed information can be found on Kari Grohn’s page.
Part of me appreciates the respect provided to the dolls, but at the same time I find myself distressed to see such beautiful, well-loved dolls burning.
Having said that, I can also see how it might also represent a therapeutic transition to adulthood, a symbolic letting go and a practical solution to limited space. It’s a fascinating and moving tradition.