For many people dolls are just the worst. Their faces and unblinking eyes torn straight from the uncanny valley and their general ambiance are just a little too unsettling for many people to comfortably handle. Yet, in many cultures there is a certain awe and reverence aimed towards dolls, imbuing them with a power and purpose that transcends just pieces of porcelain or plastic. Indeed, in some cultures there are full shrines featuring these objects, and these are most noticeable in Asia, where dolls have long had a sort of surreal connection with other realms, and where there are at times whole shrines devoted to them. Here we will look at some of the creepiest doll shrines of Asia, where magic is alive and where ghosts are most certainly said to roam.
A very strange and truly creepy such shrine can be found near Ketam Quarry, near the Na Du Gu Niang Temple, which is located in a remote area of the tiny island of Pulau Ubin, off the coast of Singapore. Here one can find a shrine called the Berlin Heiligtum, which stands out amongst the others in the area, containing an old Barbie doll sitting within, complete with flashy clothes, lipstick, nail polish, and covered in perfume, which is a rather odd and creepy sight to behold in an otherwise traditional temple complex. The tragic tale behind it all is spooky indeed, revolving around a young woman whose name has been lost to time, simply known as “The German Girl.”
Although there are various versions of the tale, the most common is that during World War I a young German girl was living on Pulau Ubin on a coffee plantation with her family. When Britain went to war with Germany in 1914, there was a lot of suspicion thrown on German residents of the area, and the family was arrested and detained by British soldiers. However, the girl supposedly made a desperate bid to escape, running off into the wilds where she would vanish. For several days no trace of the girl could be found, until some plantation workers clearing land in the forest came across the decomposed body of the missing German girl. At the time the workers felt it to be disrespectful and bad luck to move the corpse, so they offered prayers and covered the body with flowers and incense in a sort of makeshift shrine right there in the forest. The body would eventually be moved and given a proper burial at the top of a hill, where the body remained for decades.
In 1974, the burial site of the unknown German girl was the site of a quarry, and so it was exhumed and the body moved to a small hut nearby, which would evolve into the shrine it is today. A decorative urn was created to hold her ashes and some of the girl’s remains and other items, including strands of hair, hair brushes, nail polish, and a silver crucifix, which was then placed at temple in honor of this poor lost soul. The urn and its hut would become a popular place for people to come to leave offerings to the girl, including flowers and cosmetics, and although the urn itself was eventually stolen by robbers, another was put in its place, where it continued to collect an eclectic and eerie mix of brushes, lipstick, nail polish, hair accessories, clothing, and various miscellaneous feminine items left there by pilgrims making the trip here.
The shrine long housed only the urn and these offerings, and the Barbie doll itself would come into the picture many years later, when a local man claimed that in 2007 the ghost of the girl had appeared to him in a dream three nights in a row, and instructed him to purchase the doll at a specific shop and place it there in her honor. The man then purportedly sought out the shop and the doll from his dreams and put it in the shrine according to the ghost’s wishes. The doll remains there to this day, and for many it is believed that the girl’s spirit resides within it. Indeed, reports of a shadowy figure lurking in the vicinity of the doll are not uncommon, and there have even been reports of people being temporarily possessed by the spirit, taking on a different voice and speaking German. This spirit is generally not thought to be malevolent in any way, even said to give advice on winning lottery numbers, grant enhanced beauty, or deal out other good luck, but it is said that to touch the urn or the doll is to invite sickness and misfortune from the angry specter. The shrine has gone on to become frequently visited by people from Singapore, China, Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar, and the collection of gifts continually grows around that lone Barbie doll.
The country of Japan has several creepy doll shrines, with perhaps the most well-known being the Kawakura Sainokawara Jizoson Reidaisai, located in Aomori Prefecture. Walking along a quaint path to the temple grounds, one can see numerous stone statues lining the trail, which are said to enshrine the guardian spirit called Jizō, and are already both creepy and beautiful at the same time. Yet, it is when one enters the temple itself, which enshrines around 2,000 Jizō statues, and enters the Guardian Deity hall that things get interesting. In the center of the hall is the shrine for the guardian spirit, who is tasked with protecting the souls of deceased children and unborn babies, and around it is an array of countless Jizō dolls dedicated to these dead children, complete with pictures of the deceased, toys, and dressed in clothes and shoes which the kids were using when they were alive, all donated by the families.
The temple is well-known for not only its hall of dolls, but also its annual festival in which guests can come and speak with the spirits of these children. During the Kawakura Sainokawara Jizoson Reidaisai Festival, which is held every summer, shamans called Itako come to the temple in order to act as spiritual mediums between visitors and the deceased. The Itako typically do this by going into a trance, during which time the spirit of the deceased will often jump into the shaman’s body and speak directly through them, called Kuchi Yose. The festival is very popular, bringing in people from all over Japan to speak to the dead among the statues wearing the clothes of dead children. Write me a postcard if you ever go.
Also in Aomori is the Koboji Temple, which has for decades been collecting dolls sent in by parents grieving the deaths of their children, mostly from war or suicides. The tradition supposedly started when a woman lost her beloved son during World War II, but she was distressed that not only had he died, but he had done so without ever having been married. She then sent handmade dolls to the temple representing her son and the bride he never had, believing that enshrining them there would bring her son happiness in the afterlife. And so the word got out and the temple’s doll collection had its start with mostly people sending in dolls for their unwed war dead. When the temple was featured on a TV show in the 1980s, it became popular for people to send in dolls from all over Japan, and the focus expanded to include parents who had lost children to suicide or other untimely deaths. These dolls came in at a rate of around 10 a day, and ranged from beaten up ragged things to professionally made, expensive porcelain dolls, all of which the temple dutifully put up on display in honor of the dead. At present, the temple holds over 1,000 dolls, kept in glass containers, surrounded by pictures and personal possessions of the deceased, and the temple still receives new donations all of the time. Is it haunted? Not technically, but it seems that it very well should be.
Just about as strange is the Awashima Shrine, in Wakayama, which houses an immense collection of dolls. The dolls fill nearly every available space, with an estimated 20,000 of the things to be found here. They are given to the temple for a variety of reasons. For some it is believed that they house the souls of deceased children, and so the parents do not wish to throw them away. Others are called Hina Ningyo, which are the dolls put on display in Japanese homes every March 3rd for the “Girl’s Day” celebration, in which families pray for the happiness and health for their young daughters. When the children become adults, it is considered bad luck to throw the dolls out, and so they are given to the temple. Others still are thought to actually be haunted, given to the shrine by terrified owners trying to get rid of them. Indeed there are visitors who report the sound of children’s laughter or of disembodied voices here, so who knows?
One of the most famous and indeed spookiest of Japan’s odd dolls is one that is supposedly haunted. The tale of an infamous doll known as the Okiku doll begins in 1918, when a boy purchased it while on a trip to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido to give to his little sister, Okiku. The overjoyed little girl was smitten with the doll, and played with it every day, even going so far as to name it after herself, Okiku. The two were reportedly inseparable and went everywhere together until tragedy struck the following year and Okiku fell gravely ill. The girl soon died from complications of severe influenza and fever, and the mourning family placed her beloved doll in a family altar in memory of their daughter.
Not long after the heartbroken family placed the doll in the altar, they noticed something odd. The jet black hair of the doll, which had originally been cropped to about shoulder length and with neat ends in the traditional style, started getting longer day by day and the ends of the hair became random and haphazard in length in contrast to the straight cut it had had previously. Before long, the hair had grown all the way down to brush against the doll’s knees, which caused the rather alarmed family to conclude that Okiku’s spirit had somehow inhabited the doll. Even when the doll’s hair was trimmed, it soon grew back inexplicably and always stopped at around knee length.
In 1938, the Suzuki family moved to Sakhalin but was wary of taking the mysterious doll with them. Since they believed that their daughter’s spirit resided within the doll, they were unwilling to discard it and so they instead brought it to Mannenji temple, in the town of Iwamizawa, Hokkaido, Japan. The family explained the doll’s unusual qualities to the priest of the temple, yet he accepted it anyway and soon was able to see for himself that indeed the doll’s hair continued to grow. Trimming the hair became a regular chore at the temple, and soon pictures of the doll with hair of various lengths were adorning the shrine where it was kept.
To this day, the doll remains enshrined at Mannenji temple, housed within a modest wooden box, and its hair purportedly continues to mysteriously grow no matter how often it is trimmed. The haunted Okiku doll has become rather famous throughout its native Japan, with its story being adapted into novels, films, and traditional Kabuki plays, which have mostly expanded and dramatized the story to include more ghostly, spooky elements such as the doll giggling, sobbing, wailing, or walking about, which were never actually reported by the family. It is unclear what is going on with the eerie growing hair of the very creepy, pale-faced Okiku doll. No one has really been able to explain how it has kept growing continuously for the better part of a century. Is this a truly supernatural phenomenon or some sort of hoax? Samples of the Okiku’s doll have been taken and analyzed in the past and it was determined that the hair was indeed human, but this does not necessarily point to a supernatural origin. What is going on with this doll? Is this some sort of trick or are there paranormal forces we don’t understand compelling its hair to perpetually grow? Who knows?
Here have been a few of the undeniably disturbing and creepy doll shrines scattered throughout Asia that you probably never knew you didn’t want to know about. These really take the inherent creepiness of dolls as turn it up a notch, making these objects the center of myths and stories that are either very odd, or truly horrifying, depending on your attitude towards dolls. It underscores the fact that in many cultures dolls have a sort of magical power associated with them, some detachment from the reality we know and link to the spiritual beyond what we can see, and to fully experience this for yourself just go ahead and give one of these shrines a visit. Be sure to tell me about it, because I certainly won’t be with you.