Mochibana at Hakusa Sanso, Shoji screen at Ginkakuji, © Risa Sekiguchi, 2009

Hina Matsuri (Girls' Day Festival)
On March 3, we celebrate Hina Matsuri, a festival for girls with ancient roots. In homes across Japan, families display heirloom dolls — some passed down for generations — from mid-February until March 4th (the day after the festival). This tradition dates back to the Heian era (794-1185), when it was popular for girls of the court to play with dolls. Since then, the dolls came to be viewed as caretakers of the girls’ health and happiness, warding off bad luck and bringing in good fortune. We can only imagine the dolls’ legacy, as they watch over generations of girls — through childhood, student life, courtship and marriage — as they grow up to become fine, strong women and have daughters of their own. Why do we take the dolls down on March 4? Well, it’s a superstition that dolls left on display too long delay the girls’ marriage.

Hina ningyo: Dolls for Girl's Day, a Japanese Festival

The main dolls represent the Odaira-sama (Emperor) and Ohina-sama (Empress), and are dressed in elaborately gorgeous, silk multi-layered Heian-style garments. They sit regally on a shelf, surrounded by intricate props and decorations evoking the lavish style of the Imperial court. This pair is the most common set owned by most households. Full displays of dolls are much larger, with seven stair-like shelves displaying 15 dolls. They include — on the second shelf, below the Imperial couple — Sannin Kanjo (three maids-in-waiting), while on the third shelf — Gonin Bayashi (five court musicians with various instruments), and so on. Each doll maker (Kyoto has some famous artisans) has their own style, and each face is different: Some are round and child-like, with others are elegantly, ethereally beautiful. Being works of art, they are quite expensive and regarded as treasures of the household, not dolls to play with in the usual sense.

Hinagashi and shirozake for girl's day

Hina Matsuri Food

Hishimochi are lovely, diamond-shaped mochi (rice cakes) with pink, white and green layers. Pink represents plum blossoms, in season in late February and early March. White represents the snow of the waning winter, while green represents the new, fresh growth of early spring.

Shiro-zake is the first variety of sake of the year, available in early spring. White, unfiltered and sweet, it came to be associated with girls, (and thus, the festival) even though women did not necessarily drink sake in the old days. The pure-white color of the sake also compliments the pink of the plum blossoms. Red (or pink) and white also signify happiness and good fortune, and are often displayed during festivals.

Hina arare
Hina arare are small, blossom or snowflake-like pink, white and green balls of crunchy puffed rice, sometimes sweetened with sugar. In the old days, arare were made of leftover mochi from the Oshogatsu (New Year’s) festival celebration, and therefore, were often enjoyed during girl’s day. This thrifty and creative use of materials also came to symbolize the desirable qualities of a good wife.




Hina ningyo
Above: Hina ningyo. Below: Hishimochi