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All Dolled Up for Hina Matsuri

Hina Matsuri, also known as Doll Festival or Girls’ Festival, is a yearly holiday on March 3 during which families pray for the happiness and health of their daughters. Without a doubt, the main attraction during this festival is the elaborate displays of porcelain dolls called hina-ningyo or hina dolls. While the history of the festival itself can be traced back to the Heian period, the displaying of dolls is said to have begun in the early 1600s, possibly influenced by the practice of ridding one’s bad luck by transferring it to a paper doll and sending it out to sea. Soon, many came to believe that displaying hina dolls during the festival could ward off evil spirits and bring good luck.
© Ministry of Foreign Affairs

In a typical five-layered platform display, a total of 15 dolls are arranged carefully to imitate a scene from an ancient imperial court during the Heian period. The main characters are the emperor and empress: these dolls rest atop of the platform, with a gilded folding screen set up behind them. Three ladies-in-waiting are placed on the second tier, and five court musicians on the third. The fourth tier has two court ministers, while the bottom tier has three helpers. With intricately crafted features and luxurious clothes, it is no wonder that hina dolls can be very expensive: a pricier set can cost up to one million yen! These days, single-tiered displays with a pair of male and female dolls are also common.
© Asahi Shogakusei Shimbun

Some public Hina Matsuri celebrations feature impressive displays that span several layers and feature a large cast of courtly characters. At Tomisaki Shrine, located in Katsuura City, 1800 dolls adorn the shrine’s 60 stone steps. The city itself is famous for the Katsuura Big Hina Matsuri, with local businesses, schools, and families all participating enthusiastically by displaying a large variety of hina dolls around town. Around 30,000 dolls are displayed every year as part of this festival! There is even a shrine in Kyoto called Ichihime Shrine where visitors can enjoy a reconstruction of a hina doll display with real people!

Families typically begin to decorate their dolls in mid-February but are careful to put it away as soon as Hina Matsuri is over. According to superstition, leaving the hina dolls out too long after the festival will harm a daughter’s chances of marriage.

© Web Japan

In addition to the beautiful doll displays, there are also some foods that are associated with Hina Matsuri. Hishimochi, or tri-coloured rice cakes, are diamond-shaped rice cakes that are traditionally displayed with the Hina dolls. Dyed pink, white, and green, they are a pretty and delicious treat that represent fertility. Another colourful snack associated with Hina Matsuri is hina arare, which are puffed rice crackers. A meal of sushi rice topped with brightly-coloured ingredients such as raw fish, omelette strips, vegetables, and shellfish, known as Chirashi-zushi (‘scattered sushi’), is also commonly enjoyed by many during this festival.

Besides Hina Matsuri, there are also other festivals associated with children in Japan. Every year on May 5, families celebrate the health and happiness of their children on Children’s Day. Families with boys display carp-shaped streamers (known as ‘koinobori’ in Japanese) symbolising strength and success outside their homes. Celebrations for children’s health also take place on November 15, during Shichi-go-san. Boys and girls aged three, boys aged five, and girls aged seven visit shrines with their parents dressed in kimono and hakama.

Opportunities to see these majestic doll displays outside of Japan are few and far between, but did you know that there is a smartphone game through which you can familiarise yourself with the practice? Developed by 85-year-old Masako Wakamiya, Hinadan is a game in which users must decorate and arrange hina dolls. Designed to be enjoyable and stimulating for the elderly, this is a game that can definitely be a bridge between generations.




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