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Japanese Folk Dolls Museum – Not Just Child's Play

March 2019 Highlight

Japanese/English sign of the Kyoto Japanese Folk Dolls Museum.

On March 3rd, the hina matsuri is celebrated all over Japan with ceremonies in shrines and temples. However, this is mainly a festival for girls, where sets of beautiful dolls representing the imperial court are put up in private homes with daughters. In this month, many places show their collections of hina dolls, but the most natural one to visit is the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum in Saga, Kyoto.

About Japanese Dolls

In Japan, dolls have an important cultural significance that goes beyond simply being a toy for children. For example, at certain Shinto purification rites, thin paper dolls in human shape are used to take ailments of a person, and are then floated down a stream, taking all the bad things with them. And during the hina matsuri, displaying the set of dolls is meant as a wish for the well-being of the girls of a family. A large, seven-tier hina dan can be very expensive, and thus, these dolls are not meant to be played with. Definitely meant to be played with though are karakuri, mechanical dolls, that range from the very simple jack-in-the-box type to elaborate masterpieces operated in front of large crowds.

A traditional Saga doll with her colorful clothing

A Saga Doll, Edo period. Collection of the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum.

In general, however, Japanese dolls are different from Western ones. The meaning of the Japanese word ningyo is simply human form, although it is most often translated into English as doll. Thus, some Japanese ningyo are better described as figurines made for display, rather than soft and cuddly toys for little children to play with. The style of traditional Japanese dolls often differs according to the location where they are made. This makes them a popular souvenir or gift among Japanese and foreigners alike.

On the website of the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum, there are many photos of different kinds of Japanese dolls.

The white skin of Gosho Dolls is especially prized.

A Gosho Doll, end of Edo period. Collection of the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum.

About the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum

The main entrance to the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum in Saga, Kyoto.

This museum is located in Saga, in the western part of Kyoto, where the famous Saga dolls originate, which were probably first made in the 16th century. The museum was opened in 1988 and has a total collection of over 200.000 pieces from the Edo to the Showa era; 3845 of them were designated as national registration or tangible folk cultural properties. Many different types of antique dolls or figurines from all over Japan can be seen in the permanent exhibition, but there is a focus on dolls made in or around Kyoto.

For example, there are the Saga dolls, which have a wood basis and are elaborately decorated with natural paints from (semi-precious) stones or shells, as well as gold leaf. Fushimi dolls are much simpler versions of these, they are made from clay and are thought to be the origin of all the different clay dolls in Japan. Especially valuable and sought after are the so-called Gosho dolls, white, life-sized baby dolls. They were originally given as presents to daimyo lords when they were visiting the emperor in Kyoto.

There are only two exhibition periods in this small museum, one in spring, the other one in autumn.

About the Current Exhibition

Ohina-sama: Dolls for the Hina Matsuri

(February 20 – March 31, 2019)

In this exhibition, a large number of beautiful hina dolls, in particular the female mebina and male obina, which are placed on the top of the hinadan, are shown. With their elaborate costumes and serene expressions, these dolls give a glimpse into the past of Japan. Some of the dolls date as far back as the Edo period, and belonged to famous Japanese families. Since not many of these hina dolls have been kept, this exhibition is truly special. .

For a more detailed description about this exhibition (in Japanese), visit the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum website.

Flyer for the current exhibition at the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum.

Photos # 2, 3, and 5: Courtesy of the Japanese Folk Dolls Museum.