As the store shelves become devoid of Valentine’s Day chocolate in Japan, the displays are quickly replaced by ones of elaborate dolls.
What are these dolls for you may ask?
For the Hina Matsuri– which unlike Japanese Valentine’s Day, is a festival I love!
What is Hina Matsuri
Each year on March 3rd, Japan celebrates Hina Matsuri (雛祭り), also known as “Girl’s Day”, “Peach Festival” or “Doll Festival”. This festival celebrates young girls, wishing them health and happiness in their lives ahead.
The Origins of Hina Matsuri
The contemporary festival originated from Hina-nagashi (雛流し), where dolls in straw boats were released down the river, supposedly taking along any evil spirits or bad luck with them. While this custom can still be seen today in Kyoto, in most other areas people have stopped this practice because fisherman were catching the dolls in their nets.
Hina Matsuri Today
Typically after Setsubun (節分), the day before Japanese spring, families with female children will put a set of dolls on display.
While most families use traditionally crafted dolls, today there are many more modern variations of the hina dolls, such as those portrayed by Disney or Sanrio characters.
These dolls will remain on display for around one month, only to be promptly taken down the day after Hina Matsuri on March 4th, due to the the superstition that if left out for too long the girls will have a hard time finding a husband.
The dolls themselves are usually acquired by the family after the first girl is born; either by inheriting them, as a gift from the grandparents, or by simply purchasing themselves. This custom of putting dolls on display is said to have begun during the Heian period (794-1185), and as such the dolls are all modeled after the hierarchy of the imperial court during that time.
Some Hina-Ningyo displays are very extravagant and elaborate.
Traditionally they are arranged and displayed on a five or seven-tiered stand covered with a red carpet.
Sets can range from a few hundred-thousand yen to up in the millions! Although, due to the cost and limited space, it is now common to see smaller versions on display in homes. In fact, today it is most common to only display the very top-tier.
The Hina-Ningyo Placements
You can probably guess, seeing as this custom comes from Japan, that there are many rules about the proper placement of these dolls. You can’t just arrange the dolls how you’d like, and wouldn’t you believe it’s actually quite complex.
The top-tier holds the two most important dolls. These dolls represent the Emperor, called Odari-sama (御内裏様) who is holding a ritual baton, and the Empress, called Ohime-sama (御雛様) who holds a fan.
Between them you’ll see an arrangement of two vases of peach blossoms called a sanbo kazari (三方飾), and to the outside of the platform there are bonbori (雪洞), paper lanterns decorated with plum blossoms or cherry blossoms which represent the spring season.
In traditional arrangements the female is seated at the right side of the male doll, because historically the Empress was always seated to the right side of the Emperor. However, in the 20th century the Empress began to sit on the Emperor’s left side. You’ll find this change has since been incorporated in the modern Hina-Ningyo placements– except in Kyoto where they still place them in the original, traditional position.
In the second tier are the three court ladies, sannin kanjo (三人官女), and each one is holding some form of sake equipment.
From left to right:
- Kuwae no choushi (加えの銚子): backup sake-bearer (standing)
- Sanpou (三方): sake bearer (seated)
- Nagae no choushi (長柄の銚子): long-handled sake-bearer (standing)
The accessories placed in between the ladies are called takatsuki (高坏), which are round-topped tables used for serving seasonal sweets.
- Taiko (太鼓) drummer (seated)
- Otsuzumi (大鼓) drummer (standing)
- Kotsuzumi (小鼓) drummer (standing)
- Fue (笛) or Yokobue (横笛) flautist (seated)
- Utaikata (謡い方), the singer (seated)
The fourth tier displays two ministers (大臣, daijin), who are usually equipped with bow and arrows.
- Udaijin (右大臣): The Minister of the Right, who is on the left side
- Sadaijin (左大臣): The Minister of the Left, who is portrayed as much older with a long white beard
- Nakijogo (泣き上戸): the maudlin drinker
- Okorijogo (怒り上戸): the cantankerous drinker
- Waraijogo (笑い上戸): the merry drinker
There are actually no dolls on the sixth tier, and instead used to display a variety of miniature items that can be found within the imperial palace. Common items include:
- Nagamochi (長持): a long chest used for kimono storage
- Kyodai (鏡台): a chest of drawers with a small mirror on top
- Tansu (箪笥): a chest of usually five drawers
- Hasamibako (挟箱): a small box used for storing clothes, it’s placed on top of the nagamochi
- Daisu (台子): utensils for a tea ceremony
- Haribako (針箱): a sewing kit box
- Hibachi (火鉢): two braziers
Like the sixth platform, this level also contains no dolls. These items however are all things that can be found outside the imperial palace. Some common items are:
- Jubako (重箱): a set of lacquered food boxes tied together by a cord with a handle
- Goshoguruma (御所車): a carriage pulled by an ox
- Gokago (御駕籠): a palanquin
A Day Celebrating Girls
It’s actually quite rare for girls to be celebrated in Asia, and before WWII this event was typically the only time little Japanese girls would be allowed their own parties.
Today, after making visits to the local shrine, girls will still invite their friends over for a party, where they will dress in traditional clothes while eating special sweets and other customary dishes.
The traditional colors for this festival are white (symbolizing snow or purity), green (symbolizing new growth or health) and pink (symbolizing peach flowers). As such you’ll find these colors are often used in the dishes themselves.
Popular sweets to make would be hishi-mochi or sakura-mochi. Hishi-mochi is what the dolls are enjoying in the display, and are diamond shaped mochi cakes. Colored in the three colors mentioned above, they symbolise the change from winter to spring. Sakura-mochi is another type of mochi rice cake. The rice is made pink and then filled with red bean paste before getting wrapped in a pickled cherry tree leaf.
Other common dishes for Hina Matsuri are: a type of sushi called chirashi-zushi, a clam soup served in the shell to symbolize good marriage, colored candies or rice crackers, and sweet fermented rice wine.
I can’t think of a better way to begin the spring season in Japan than by celebrating Hina Matsuri. Filled with happiness, well-wishes, and cute pink and peachy colors, it’s a joyous occasion for everyone involved.
Now we just need to wait for the actual peach and cherry blossoms to bloom!