When the spring’s warmth comes to Japan, it is also time for one of its most beautiful traditional holidays: Hinamatsuri. Also known as Japanese Girls’ Day or Doll’s Festival, this annual festival falls on March 3rd to celebrate young girls in Japan and to wish them good health, happiness and a successful marriage.
The most important symbol during Hinamatsuri is the hina doll. Generally made with traditional doll-making techniques, they have Japanese facial features and are dressed in traditional Japanese costumes.
As March draws near, families with daughters set up a beautiful display of hina dolls on tiered platforms covered with red cloth, a tradition born during the early years of the Edo period in the 17th century. The number of dolls and their size vary from home to home, but five to seven-tiered platforms are the most common. Celebrants display the dolls hierarchically with the emperor and empress at the top. Three court ladies in traditional samurai clothing sit on the tier below. Five male musicians holding musical instruments belong on the third platform. The lower tiers are for various furniture pieces, tools and more dolls including ministers and samurais.
Girl’s Day Traditions in Japan
Traditionally, a newborn girl’s parents or grandparents give her a set of hina dolls before her first Hinamatsuri as a birthday gift in Japan. Back in the day, Hinamatsuri doll sets used to be the most expensive item that a daughter might own until she received her first kimono. Though these days many families choose to buy smaller and more affordable sets, it can still become an heirloom passed on from one generation to the next.
The hina dolls displays come out in mid-to-late February and are remain until the end of March 3rd. The Japanese believe that keeping the dolls up past the holiday date will result in late marriage for their daughters. When the girls in the family get married, it means that the dolls have completed their purpose. A lot of families hand them down to the next generation of daughters and granddaughters. But as the dolls become outdated, they are brought to temples to be burned in a special Buddhist ceremony for dead infants, so that their spirits will rest in peace.
Recently, there has been a series of special events held throughout Japan featuring retired hina dolls. The highlight of this event is a giant tiered stand with over a thousand dolls displayed on the 60 stone steps in front of a shrine. Such displays are usually beautifully lit up and attract a lot of tourists and locals.
Doll Floating Ceremony
Doll floating rituals date back to the 8th century. Like many other Japanese traditions, Japanese Girls’ Day originally began as a custom to ward off evil spirits and pray for a prosperous and healthy future. Many people saw the hina dolls as good luck charms. Young girls made them out of straw and released them into the rivers, in a custom called hina nagashi (“doll floating”). As March is the time of year when the seasons change from winter to spring, people believed that the dolls will sail away taking all the bad luck and misfortunes with them. After floating the dolls are collected and burned.
Now only a few places in Japan continue with the doll floating ritual that usually takes place on March 3rd. Many people prefer to keep the dolls after the festival. carefully packing them away to be able to enjoy the dolls next year.
Hinamatsuri Traditional Food
The beginning of spring is exciting not only for girls who are looking forward to displayimg their most precious hina dolls on the red-cloth covered platforms. It is also a time for the parents to enjoy decorating their homes with traditional flowers, sharing delicious delicacies, and giving their daughters special sweet gifts for Japanese Girls’ Day.
Traditionally, girls in Japan invite their friends to their houses to celebrate the festival. As with any other holiday, food and drinks play a central role on Hinamatsuri. Ceremonial foods include savory dishes such as chirashi (sushi rice with raw fish on top), clam soup served in the shell, and mixed rice with edamame (soy beans). Another popular dish for the Girls’ Day celebration is inari sushi—tofu pockets stuffed with rice and savory toppings.
Sweets are another big part of the menu. Wagashi is a general term for traditional Japanese desserts. A sweet treat served on Hinamatsuri is a diamond-shaped, tri-colored rice cake called Hishimochi. This popular dessert symbolizes fertility and its colors represent peach flowers (pink layer), snow (white layer) and new growth (green layer). Pink sticky rice wrapped in a sakura leaf known as sakura mochi is another children’s favorite during the festival. Whatever desserts people enjoy on Japanese Girls’ Day, they are display them with the hina dolls.
Other Japanese Girls’ Day Traditions
Girl’s Day in Japan is also called Momo no Sekku, or the peach blossom festival. The peach trees blooming in Japan often coincides with the holiday and peach blossoms are traditional decorations in homes on Hinamatsuri.
Different regions in Japan have developed different Hinamatsuri customs. For example in Shizuoka Prefecture, there’s a 150-year-old tradition to decorate houses by hanging handmade dolls on the ceiling. The Japanese words for the dolls is tsurushi-bina. These cute dolls of thick Japanese silk gained popularity worldwide, and are now increasingly common throughout Japan.
You don’t have to be Japanese to enjoy this beautiful festival that celebrates young girls in the family. Start your own tradition of decorating the house for spring, enjoying sweet treats and sending old dolls down the river. It can be a fun activity kids of all ages will enjoy. Happy Hinamatsuri!