Every year in March, the world celebrates International Women’s Day, but did you know that in the same month Japan also has a festival dedicated to the girls? In this article, let’s learn about Hinamatsuri, a colourful celebration marked by exquisite Japanese dolls, special food and drink, and delicate peach blossoms.
Essentially, Hinamatsuri is…
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Hinamatsuri 雛祭り, known as Girls Day or Doll Festival in Japan, is a special day on which parents pray for the health and happiness of their young daughters. It is celebrated on March 3rd every year by displaying ornamental Hina dolls at home and eating auspicious foods for the occasion.
Traditionally, the festival was celebrated on the third day of the third month in lunar calendar, the time when the peach blossoms start to bloom (in April). Therefore, Hinamatsuri is also called Momo no Sekku, means the Peach Blossom Festival. The flower remains an important element in Hinamatsuri celebrations.
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The origins of Hinamatsuri date back to the Heian period (794-1185). At the time people would set the hina dolls adrift on water believing that bad luck and disease would float away into the river with the dolls. However, with time this practice, known as Nagashi-bina 流し雛, was deemed wasteful as the hina dolls became more and more lavish. Therefore, in the early Edo period, people adapted it into the tradition of displaying the dolls instead.
How the day is celebrated
Hinamatsuri is considered a big day for families with young girls. It is however not a national holiday, and could just be a normal day for families that do not celebrate it. The ways people celebrate it also differ from region to region.
In certain regions it is observed on April 3rd; there are also parts of the country that choose to celebrate the tradition according to the lunar calendar. You can still find the old Nagashi-bina ritual in some areas like Kyoto.
Generally, the preparations for Hinamatsuri start as early as a month before the actual day. Hina dolls will be put on display at a prominent spot in the house, usually on a red-cloth covered, tiered platform called hinadan. Also placed with the doll display are ceremonial foods like hishimochi and shirozake, and also peach blossoms.
Let’s learn more about the items commonly associated with Hinamatsuri below:-
Hina dolls 雛人形
The icon of Hinamatsuri, these ornately dressed dolls represent the Emperor, Empress, musicians, and various attendants of the Heian period imperial court. The displays range from a simple set that includes only the Emperor and Empress, to extravagant multi-tiered affairs that contain more characters and regalia.
As significant as they are, the dolls are to be put away as soon as the festival is finished, because according to an old superstition failure to do so might cause the daughter to marry late!
A traditional sweet wine made from fermented rice. It has been associated with Hinamatsuri celebration since the Edo period, but since it is an alcoholic drink, it is taken by the adults. For children, they drink the nearly non-alcoholic amazake instead.
Literally scattered sushi, this colourful dish is made by topping sushi rice with a variety of ingredients such as vegetables, seafood, and egg. The toppings actually have meanings, for example, shrimp for longevity, lotus root for good outlook, and so on.
Another symbol of Hinamatsuri, this diamond-shaped rice cake has three colours: pink represents the peach blossoms and signifies good health; white represents the snow and signifies purity, and green represents the green shoots in spring and signifies growth.
These rice crackers can be sweet or savoury depending on the region. Just like hishimochi, they often come in a mix of three colours: green, pink, and white, symbolising the anticipation of the coming spring after the long cold winter.
Tsurushi Bina 吊るし雛
Originated in Shizuoka prefecture, these cute hanging decorations were introduced in the late Edo period, when they were also used by the poor families as a substitute for the hina doll display. The small dolls on a string come in various shapes like animals, flowers, and other symbols of Hinamatsuri, each carries a meaning and well wishes for the girls.
Famous Hinamatsuri Events
Although Hinamatsuri is more of a family affair which people celebrate privately, you can see hina doll displays in shopping malls and a number of public spaces, also special Hinamatsuri dishes being sold at department stores and some restaurants.
Many public events held around the period also allow the public to join and experience the festivities. Below are some of the famous Hinamatsuri events that visitors can check out:-
Konosu Bikkuri Hinamatsuri 鴻巣びっくりひな祭
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Taking place in Konosu city in Saitama prefecture, this event is called Bikkuri Hinamatsuri (Surprising Doll Festival) because it features an impressive 7m high, 31 tiered pyramid stand with over 1,800 dolls placed on it – the tallest of its kind in Japan. The celebration is a tribute to the city’s centuries-old doll-making history, which earns it the reputation as the hometown of hina dolls. Other than the pyramid, you can also find many other displays across the event venue (Elumi Konosu Shopping Mall), as well as at various locations in the city.
Period: mid-February to early March
Access: direct access from Konosu Station on the JR Takasaki Line.
Katsuura Big Hinamatsuri かつうらビッグひな祭り
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The port city of Katsuura in Chiba prefecture is well-known for its Hinamatsuri celebration, with a total of 30,000 dolls being displayed across the city! There are several notable festival venues, notably Tomisaki Shrine where its doll-lined staircase is the main attraction, and Katsuura City Art and Cultural Exchange Center which displays 8,000 dolls and the country’s largest Kyoho-bina dolls. When dusk comes, many of the locations are illuminated so you can enjoy seeing the dolls in a different atmosphere.
Period: late February to early March
Access: 10-minute walk from Katsuura Station on the JR Sotobo Line.
Hyakudan Hinamatsuri 百段雛まつり
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A no ordinary Hinamatsuri event held at Hotel Gajoen Tokyo’s Hyakudan Kaidan, a tangible cultural property which comprises seven lavishly decorated rooms linked by a 99-step staircase. It features antique ornamental dolls from different regions across Japan, including fine elaborate pieces previously owned by feudal lords and wealthy merchants. The themes of exhibition change annually, plus Hyakudan Kaidan is only open to the public during the event period, it certainly makes the event all the more special!
*Note: No photography except in permitted areas.
Period: mid-January to early March
Access: 3 minute walk from Meguro Station.