I wandered into Ueno park with every intention of spending a quiet afternoon watching pandas and penguins at the zoo. I started the day with a visit to the statue of Takamori Saigo, the legendary Ronin then wandered among the various shrines and temples located in the park.
I paused briefly at the Kaneiji Kiyomizudo Temple. According to the guidebook, this is where women wishing to become pregnant come to pray to the Goddess of Mercy (fill in your own punch line). Those whose prayers are answered return later to pray for the health of the child. Many leave dolls behind as a sort of offering. The description in the book left me with visions of a mound of dolls piling up in the back room of this temple while disgruntled monks looked for a way to quietly dispose of these ritualistic offerings. Or maybe the monks were also doll collectors. The mind reels with possibilities.
The area was mostly deserted and the temple appeared to be closed. I peered through the gates hoping for a glimpse of some massive mountain of dolls, but there wasn’t much to see on this particular morning. Just a maintenance man raking some leaves.
After leaving the temple, I worked my way around the park and down towards the lake. At this point I was wandering aimlessly, and as I climbed back up Ueno hill, I must confess I was not sure exactly where I was and was actually feeling a bit lost.
In time, a strange and discordant music seemed to engulf the hill. It was an unearthly sound. Since I wasn’t sure where I was or where I was going (a typical state of mind in Tokyo) I decided to follow the sound and see where it might lead me.
As I arrived at the top of the hill I realized that my aimless wandering had lead me in a complete circle and I had returned to my starting point in front of the Temple. My walk through the park must have taken longer than I thought. The formerly deserted temple grounds were now the site of an incredible amount of activity. Loud music was coming from an amplifier set up in front of the temple, right next to what looked like a large barbecue pit made out of concrete slabs. As I moved closer to take a look at the pit, I realized it was literally filled with dolls. There was every kind of doll imaginable: porcelain geishas carefully mounted on wooden platforms, floppy over-stuffed dogs, and traditional teddy bears. Even Barbie, Ken and Elmo were all in the pit awaiting some uncertain fate.
A crowd was slowly gathering. They were mostly Japanese and dressed as if they were going to church. They had come for the annual doll burning ritual, which, much to my surprise, was about to take place. The event is held every year on September 25th in front of the Kaneiji Kiyomizudo Temple.
The crowd waited patiently as the ceremony began. A processional lead by a pair of young Japanese women dressed in traditional Kimono marched slowly from the temple. They were followed by a Buddhist priest and four Buddhist monks. The processional slowly made its way to a canopy near the pit. This is where the ritual began.
The priest and the monks sat under the canopy and began chanting in unison. The Buddhists have a tremendous command of sound in ritual; this ritual featured percussion, which became a kind of hypnotic counterpoint to the chanting. The monks were chanting prayers written on brightly colored circles of paper. Each monk had a small stack of these prayer circles which they would touch, one by one, to their foreheads and then toss them to the ground.
When the chanting ended, the women from the processional stood with dolls in hand and slowly walked toward the pit. One of the women read something in Japanese (which means I have no clue what she said), and then both women placed their dolls on top of the pile in the pit. They stood back as two men with flaming torches lit the pile of dolls. In seconds, the dolls were engulfed in flames and the crowd became chaos.
The place was swarming with professional media photographers (and me with my cheap disposable camera). As soon as the dolls were on fire, the camera crews moved in to capture the event. The carefully erected media barriers were instantly obliterated. I jumped the barriers with my compatriots from the press corps.
The monks looked on in amusement. The priest was actually taking pictures of us taking pictures of the burning dolls. Very Zen.
Within minutes, the fire had died out and the dolls were transformed into a pile of ash.
Then it was over. People raced to the canopy to grab the prayer circles. The camera crews packed up and left the park. Presumably the priest stopped off at a Photomat to develop his film.
Everyone went back to the bustling world that is modern Tokyo.