March 3 is a special occasion in Japan, one that prays for girls’ happiness and health. Hinamatsuri translates to Doll Festival, though it is more commonly known as Girls’ Day or Doll’s Day. The event originates from an ancient doll-floating festival from the Heian period. People placed straw dolls on boats and sent them downstream to symbolize washing away bad spirits or misfortune.
Today, the most iconic aspect of Hinamatsuri is the doll display. These can be quite large, and preparations usually begin in February. There is a special platform covered in red carpet, and the dolls are expertly dressed in Heian imperial garb. There are specific rules regarding doll placement, and though this can differ between regions, there is always some similarity. The different tiers represent a hierarchy and there are special terms for each doll.
At the top sit the Emperor and Empress, holding an imperial baton and fan. Usually, there are additional decorations like gold screens, lanterns, and greenery. In extremely detailed versions, there are vases with peach branches between the two. In the Kansai region, the Emperor is on the right, though this is reversed in Kanto.
Next are three court ladies holding sake accessories, followed by five musicians. They feature three different drums, a flute, and a fan. After them are two ministers, usually shown with bows and arrows. There are also food and trees for additional decor. Three samurai sit on the fifth tier as protectors of the imperial family. Sometimes there are two more tiers featuring items or symbols of imperial palaces. For example, carriages, furniture, sewing kits, or tea ceremony utensils.
Hinamatsuri displays vary wildly, from having only the imperial dolls to having all seven tiers. As expected, this can be very expensive, and Hina dolls are known for their hefty price tags. Some run up to thousands of dollars! Today, many don’t own full displays or even a single doll. People also choose smaller platforms to fit small apartments. There are also modern representations such as stylized designs or popular icons in place of traditional dolls.
Traditionally, Girls Day is celebrated until children reach adulthood. There are a number of customs besides the doll display, such as the doll floating activities of old. This event eventually waned in popularity since boats were trapped in fishing nets and crowding the rivers, though a few shrines still maintain the tradition. The most popular is Awashima Shrine in Wakayama. These days, organizers retrieve the dolls and boats after people have left and burn them at the shrines. The event is still in decline though, as many see it wasteful and time-consuming.
Sake made from fermented rice is a popular drink during this occasion. Children adore the colorful sweets, rice crackers, or diamond-shaped rice cakes. Traditional Japanese sweets are especially popular, and there are often bright assortments available. Another dish is chiraishizushi, which is sushi rice topped with raw fish, egg, vegetables, and seaweed. People also eat clams, believing they symbolize unity and peace.
Other decorations include peach blossoms, since they bloom around the beginning of March. Many homes and businesses have vases showing off the delicate flowers. Ceiling decorations are another highlight, featuring cute or symbolic objects made from silk. The practice originated in Shizuoka but is now a widespread custom.
Girls Day is a special occasion that most people don’t get to experience. Visitors who arrive during late February or early March should keep an eye out for the colorful decorations and displays. Take some time to enjoy the special dishes, or even purchase a doll or two to keep as a souvenir. Eventually, you just might build up a collection of your own.
Omizutori is an ancient two-week long festival that occurs at Todaiji Temple in March. This is a truly exciting event that encompasses many rituals, including a fire and water ceremony.
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