Today we go down to the quaint town of Iwatsuki in Saitama Prefecture, to witness the cute Hina Ningyo dolls. Just like manga or anime that appeals to the young and old alike, these Japanese dolls from Saitama are loved by people of all generations.
Interestingly the name of “Saitama” originates from the Sakitama (埼玉郡) district. Sakitama has a long history and even finds a place in the famous Man’yōshū (万葉集), the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled sometime after 759 C.E. The colloquial pronunciation gradually changed from Sakitama to Saitama over the years.
Train from Takasaki to Iwatsuki
We were staying at the Toyoko Inn at Takasaki. From Takasaki, we took the Joetsu Shinkansen to Omiya, the biggest city near Iwatsuki. The Shinkansen does not go all the way to Iwatsuki so we had to change to the local Tobu-Noda Line at Omiya Station. From Omiya, it’s just about 15 minutes to Iwatsuki. If you are in Kanto region, it is a good idea to obtain the Tokyo Wide Pass, or as in my case the JR Pass.
The doll town of Iwatsuki
After a quick ride on the local train, we landed in Iwatsuki Station at 11 am. The Tougyoku Doll Museum is just a minute away from the station in a tranquil neighborhood. The town of Iwatsuki is said to have over 300 doll-makers creating miniature masterpieces using only natural materials. They have been making dolls here since the 17th century, a tradition that continues to this day.
The history of Saitama Dolls
Iwatsuki has a very interesting connection with the Toshogu shrine of Nikko. About 366 years ago, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu invited skillful carpenters from all over the country in order to build Toshogu Shrine, a mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu. In those days Iwatsuki used to be a small castle town on the Nikko-onari-kaido road between Nikko and Edo (Old Tokyo).
The workmen and artisans labored for the next couple of years to build the heavily ornate Toshogu Shrine. Iwatsuki and its outskirts were abundant with the finest Paulownia trees. Once the Nikko Toshogu Shrine was completed, some of the disbanded carpenters chose to settle down in and around Iwatsuki and creating household furnitures for a living.
Around 3 centuries ago, Eshin, a Buddhist image sculptor from Kyoto, devised a method of making dolls out of these Paulownia wood powder using a technique called Tosokashira. The process involved mixing the paste of Paulownia powder and Shobunori (paste made from wheat starch). In addition to Paulownia wood, the abundance of high quality water found on Iwatsuki also became essential in creating the Tosokashira mix. The technique was passed down the generations and is still employed today for making these detailed handmade dolls.
Tougyoku Doll Museum
The history of Tougyoku museum runs parallel with that of the town of Iwatsuki. Founded in 1852, the museum was started with the idea of protecting and furthering the indigenous art of doll making in Iwatsuki. Today, the museum exhibits hundreds of dolls including some really historical ones like the Iwatsuki ganso kamishimo hina doll.
We reached Iwatsuki Station around 11 am. The museum is right across from the station, on the left side of the street. From outside the museum building looks like any other building and easy to miss. An elevator took us up to the museum on the fourth floor floor. Out of the lift, we found ourselves in front of a dimly lit room.
No one was around at the entrance so we just put the admission money in a box and entered the premises. The admission cost is ¥300 per person.
The museum was empty barring one family. Many of the dolls here, date back hundreds of years and are truly works of art. It is also interesting to see how they have evolved over time.
Dolls in Tougyoku Museum
Near the entrance there are various nifty little dolls made of fabric hanging on strings, creating sort of curtain. Some were in the shape of Owls, one of the very popular creatures in Japan. Some time ago I did a research on the Owl superstitions among the Japanese.
The first section my eyes went to were these miniature clay dolls. Beside it were the words – ‘Hatsu uma’, the first day of the horse. In the old Japanese calendar, the first day of the horse falls at the beginning of February, which coincided with the first planting of rice for the year. A festival is held at the ‘Fox Shrine’ to pray for a good and prosperous harvest. This little figure is dancing at that festival.
This is a miniature clay art cute little boy, with a happy facial expression, who is taking part in the same Hatsu uma festival. He is shown wearing a beautifully painted kimono, decorated with colorful flowers and is playing a Japanese taiko or drum.
Shichou dolls from Taisho period
On the left wall, the Shichou dolls are on exhibit from the Taisho era (1868-1926). These impressive samurai warrior dolls were crafted for display on Boys’ Day, celebrated annually in Japan.
The exquisite detailing on these works of art is beyond words. Extreme effort has been put into making the expressions so human.
Another doll from the same era.
This is a rare Edo Period Kokin-bina Empress. It is part of a Dairi-bina Imperial Couple for the Hina-matsuri Girl’s Day celebration. The me-bina lady is wearing a spectacular crown. The dress is a formal court attire.
From the Shichou dolls we moved on to the most favorite of all dolls – Hina Ningyo. The Hina Ningyo dolls have a history of over 1000 years. These dolls are made with extreme ornamental details and calm expressions. They usually represent the Emperor, Empress and other court attendants of the Heian period (794-1185) During the Hina Matsuri festival, celebrated on March 3rd each year, families with the girl child display their Hina Ningyo dolls and pray for their child’s growth and happiness. Most Hina dolls are heavily ornate.
The carpenters did not just make dolls. They also created some exquisite furniture to go with the cute dolls. The miniature vessels and furniture are perfect for a doll house.
On Boys’ Day which is observed on May 5th, families pray for their sons’ good health and success. On this day, Warrior dolls with miniature armor and warrior helmets are displayed. These dolls especially made for boys are called Gogatsu Ningyo and appear with fierce expressions, wearing armour, and showing the courage, bravery and honor expected of the Samurais.
Origin of Gogatsu dolls
The origins of Gogatsu dolls come from an age old samurai tradition. In the old days, when a boy was born in the family of a samurai, his parents used to put ornamental helmets and trinkets and hang them at the entrance gate to celebrate the birth. They also had a custom of gifting a new samurai body armour to the child. These items were put together to form the Gogatsu doll, though in a smaller size. To this day people display Gogatsu doll to protect their sons from evil and Koinobori(carp streamers) along with wishes for good health and social success.
This is a typical Japanese doll expressing woman’s beauty through the gorgeous costume and elegant figure.
This kind of doll has been very popular since the Edo period, and it is also used for Girl’s Festival held on March 3rd.
Most of the Oyama dolls are derived from Kabuki each representing a particular dance.
I totally loved the intricate details on the kimono of this doll.
Other Dolls at Tougyoku Doll Museum
After about an hour of going through some amazing history, we left the museum. Just across the street, opposite to the museum, one can find a souvenir shop that also has a huge collection of Hina and Gogatsu dolls for sale.
One of the cheaper ones can set you back by ¥200000.
The Hina dolls are kept on the 2nd and 3rd floors.
The ground floor has some nice cheaper souvenirs for tourists like us 🙂 Rummaging through the souvenirs I found a set of cards with hand-drawn paintings of 6 UNESCO sites in Japan. They looked beautiful. I had visited all barring the Nikko Toshogu Shrine. We decided right then to visit the shrine the next day.
Iwatsuki is today Japan’s largest producer of traditional dolls. For the Japanese these dolls enjoy a special place in their lives. I had a great time at the museum and the shop. After a fun morning we were on our way to the Saitama Railway Museum.
It is a bit difficult to find on the map, so I am leaving their searchable address below.
Togokyu Doll Museum
3-2-32 Hon-cho, Iwatsuki-ku, Saitama City