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Playing with dolls: Explore the traditional trappings of Hina dolls

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By Vicki L Beyer

Traditionally in Japan the third day of the third month was celebrated as girls’ day and the fifth day of the fifth month was celebrated as boys’ day. When the decision was made to create a Children’s Day national holiday after World War II, the date of boys’ day was selected. But that doesn’t stop people from observing the girls’ day holiday with its traditional trappings, most notably the Hina dolls. In fact, an alternative name for the girls’ day holiday is Hina Matsuri, or doll festival.

There are a number of theories as to the festival’s origins and the display of dolls representing an emperor and empress and their courtiers is believed to have begun early in the Edo Period (1603-1867). Over the years, the doll sets have become increasingly elaborate, with the grandest collections consisting of an emperor and empress, ladies-in-waiting, other courtiers, musicians with their instruments, dancers and various furnishings, including lamps, chests, food boxes and sometimes even a palanquin. The dolls, usually in Heian Period (794-1195) dress, are arranged on a red felt covered stair-step dais, with the imperial couple at the top and then the courtiers by descending rank.

Part of the tradition is that when a baby girl is born into a family, she is given a set of Hina dolls that are put on display in the family home each year during the festival, usually beginning in the middle of February. In modern Japan, where storage space is limited, some stores that sell Hina dolls offer a special storage package with the sale.

The culmination of the festival is its last day, March 3, when diamond-shaped rice cakes (“hishi-mochi”), a rice malt and sake drink (“shirozake”), and sugar-coated puffed rice (“hina arare”) are consumed.

As one would expect of a festival for girls that is centuries old, the point of the festivities is to instill femininity in young girls. Even the colors of the festival, white, pink, and pastel green, symbolize various feminine virtues.

It is believed that if the dolls are not put away promptly after the festival’s end, it will delay the girl’s marriage. (I never put mine away and got married when I was 30, so it would seem it doesn’t cause too much of a delay.)

In keeping with the marriage theme, one of the popular games of the festival is a form of Concentration that involves matching the paintings inside pairs of clam shells. Since only an original pair of clam shells will fit together properly, such a pair symbolizes the perfect match of marriage.

While the festival was originally a family celebration, it became a popular grade school activity in the latter half of the 20th century. Recently, the symbols and decorations of the festival have joined the ranks of seasonal decorations in train stations, hotel lobbies, department stores, and other commercial establishments. They’ve even become popular displays at this time of year in Japanese parks and gardens around the world.

In addition to these seemingly ubiquitous Hina doll images, in this season there are a number of formal (and sometimes extensive) collections of Hina dolls featured in special exhibitions. Below are three particularly fine displays to consider visiting. They may even provide an excuse for a weekend getaway.

Tomisaki Shrine (Katsuura, Chiba; through March 3): Chiba’s Katsuura takes its observance of the Hina Matsuri seriously, with several large displays of dolls in various locations around the city. The observance is also traditional, insofar as the dolls are put away immediately after girls’ day. One of the most spectacular displays in Katsuura is at hilltop Tomisaki Shrine, where 60 steps leading to the shrine are covered with red carpet on which more than 1,200 dolls are displayed. Although the size of the display makes it difficult to examine the dolls very closely, it’s still a very impressive collection in a very impressive setting. The display is especially dramatic after dark, when it is specially illuminated.

Konosu City Hall (Konosu, Saitama; through March 8): The town of Konosu is famous for producing traditional Japanese dolls, particularly Hina dolls. In fact, Hina dolls have been crafted here for 380 years. In honor of the Hina Matsuri, Konosu is showing off the best of its Hina dolls in a special tiered pyramid display in the lobby of the city hall. The seven-meter-tall pyramid consists of 31 steps. Konosu City Hall is less than a 10-minute walk from Konosu Station, if you don’t let yourself get distracted by all the doll stores along the way. While you’re in Konosu, it’s also worth taking the time to explore Hina-no-Sato, an industrial tourism hall dedicated to demonstrating how Hina Dolls are actually made, including their intricate costumes and decorations.

World Folk Doll Museum (Suzaka, Nagano; through April 20): This museum has a special 30 tiered display of over 1,000 Hina dolls in its main exhibition hall. Also on display are a number of antique Hina dolls borrowed from private owners across the country. Many of these dolls were made in the 19th century. It is particularly interesting to observe the different costumes and hairstyles of the dolls from different periods, as well as the different settings in which they are displayed. One can almost see the evolution to the red stair steps used today. The museum’s permanent display of traditional dolls from around the world is also worth exploring. Consider an overnight trip to Suzaka, which is 25 minutes by train from Nagano City. The town is host to a number of other museums -- including a history museum, a woodblock print museum -- historical buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of historical temples and several very popular onsens. There are even a couple of ski resorts nearby.

The Hina Matsuri is a well known and popular festival. But because its observances largely take place in family homes, unlike many other Japanese festivals, it’s not an occasion that attracts large crowds. Thus, it is easy to use the festival as an excuse to get out and about, yet quietly enjoy the beautiful and intricate dolls that form the basis of the festival.

© Japan Today

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Curious to know about how the low birthrate is affecting sales.

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