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Hina Matsuri (Dolls Festival): One of the year’s most auspicious days dedicated to girls

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By Mai Shoji

The Hina Matsuri (Dolls Festival or Girls Festival) is a traditional event held each year on March 3 to celebrate young girls’ growth, good health and happiness.

Households with daughters mark this day by displaying hina ningyo (dolls) at home before the unofficial holiday. The set of dolls are customarily bought for a newborn girl unless the family has special dolls that are handed down from generation to generation. My dolls were gifted from my grandmother (on my mother’s side) for my first Hina Matsuri, and now I take them out of the closet every year for my daughter.

The custom started in the Heian Era (794 to 1185) and each doll is dressed in gorgeous ancient court attire representing the wedding of its times. It’s also known as Momo no Sekku (Peach Festival) because it fell during the peach blossom season in the old lunar calendar. Although the adoption of the Gregorian calendar shifted its dates away from the flowering of peach trees, the name remains and the pink peach flowers are used for ornaments.

Hina dolls come in one, three, five or seven-tier platforms as odd numbers are said to bring good luck. The simplest display is called shinno (imperial family) and the extravagant sets became popular in the Edo Era. Each row is covered with red felt and placed hierarchically.

A simple Shinno display of hina dolls Photo: MAI SHOJI

The top tier is reserved for dairi-bina (imperial dolls): obina or odairisama (emperor) holding a mace and mebina or ohinasama (empress) holding a folding cypress fan. The positioning may differ depending on the era and location. Generally today, mebina sits on the right (as seen from the front) in the Kanto region, and on the left in Kansai. Paper lanterns stand on both ends and there is a wooden stand in between for sacred sake.

The second level sets sannin-kanjo (three court ladies) serving the imperial palace. The senior court lady usually sits in the middle holding an offering stand. Her teeth may be blackened and her eyebrows shaved off, indicating she remained single all her life as a servant. The junior ladies stand around her, holding different types of sake servers. In between the three are round tabletops on which to place sweets.

Goninbayashi, or five male court musicians playing Noh music are on the third level. The band consists of otsuzumi (large drum), taiko (small drum), kotsuzumi (hand drum), yokobue (flute) and utaikata (singer) holding a sensu (folding fan) instead of an instrument.

The fourth tier holds two males depicted as daijin (ministers): udaijin (Minister of Right), representing physical strength, and sadaijin (Minister of Left), representing wisdom. Usually, both carry bows and arrows on their backs. Ozen (covered bowl tables) and hishidai (diamond-shaped stands) are placed between them.

Sannin jogo (three attendees), each showing angry, merry and sad faces, sit on the fifth row. From the left, one holds a rain hat, a pedestal for shoes, and an umbrella to serve for the emperor and empress.

The total number of 15 dolls is the same for five tiers in a deluxe seven-tier display. The sixth level holds important household items that brides traditionally brought along to their wedding such as tansu (chest of drawers), nagamochi (long chest for kimono storage), kyodai (mirror stand), haribako (sewing kit box) and ocha dogu (tea ceremony utensils).

The seventh and bottom tier holds items used outside of the palace like gokago (palanquin), goshoguruma (ox-drawn carriage) and jubako (laquered food boxes).

The festival is a a great opportunity to teach children the old cultures and customs, telling them what kind of positions were in a palace, what they did, what sort of equipment they used and so on.

Restaurants, hotels, schools, shrines and public spaces showcase the dolls just as they do with Christmas displays every year. They are typically set up in mid-February, but in many establishments, the dolls have been replaced by Valentine’s Day decorations ever since Japan adopted the chocolate-giving event.

At home, we eat traditional dishes such as Chirashi-zushi (sushi rice topped with cut sashimi, vegetables and cooked eggs), Ushiojiru (clear clam soup), hina-arare (tricolored sweet bite-sized rice crackers in colors pink for peach, white for purity and green for growth), hishi-mochi (in most cases tri-layered diamond-shaped rice cakes), and non-alcoholic amazake (sweet rice wine). The clam soup must use large hamaguri clams, in order to find the perfect partner, as no two clamshells are the right fit. This is because the festival also prayed for a long and lasting marriage in the old days.

One of the beliefs of this festival is that the dolls must be put away soon after the March 3 festivities. It is believed that if you keep them out too long, it will result in trouble marrying off your daughter(s). So generations of families will bring their hands together to quickly put the dolls away the day after the celebration.

Hina Matsuri is still my favorite festival and one of the reasons why I’m happy to be born a girl. Most of all, it’s the fun of taking out the well used dolls and putting them back with my mother, and now with my own daughter. We sing a traditional song over and over as we do so. It goes something like, “Let’s light the paper lantern and decorate peach flowers.” It’s a special heartwarming moment to enjoy a family bond that leaves us absolutely fulfilled.

© Japan Today

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Beautiful Story. I always enjoy reading about old Japanese culture and how it is kept alive today. Thank you for sharing with us Laurence

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