A Day Fit for a Princess: Hina Matsuri

A Day Fit for a Princess: Hina Matsuri

As the store shelves become devoid of Valentine’s Day chocolate in Japan, the displays are quickly replaced by ones of elaborate dolls.

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What are these dolls for you may ask?

For the Hina Matsuri– which unlike Japanese Valentine’s Day, is a festival I love!

What is Hina Matsuri

Each year on March 3rd, Japan celebrates Hina Matsuri (雛祭り)also known as “Girl’s Day”, “Peach Festival” or  “Doll Festival”. This festival celebrates young girls, wishing them health and happiness in their lives ahead.

The Origins of Hina Matsuri

The contemporary festival originated from Hina-nagashi (雛流し)where dolls in straw boats were released down the river, supposedly taking along any evil spirits or bad luck with them. While this custom can still be seen today in Kyoto, in most other areas people have stopped this practice because fisherman were catching the dolls in their nets.

Hina Matsuri Today

Typically after Setsubun (節分), the day before Japanese spring, families with female children will put a set of dolls on display.

While most families use traditionally crafted dolls, today there are many more modern variations of the hina dolls, such as those portrayed by Disney or Sanrio characters.

Tokyo - 2011
Tokyo Disney

These dolls will remain on display for around one month, only to be promptly taken down the day after Hina Matsuri on March 4th, due to the the superstition that if left out for too long the girls will have a hard time finding a husband.

The dolls themselves are usually acquired by the family after the first girl is born; either by inheriting them, as a gift from the grandparents, or by simply purchasing themselves. This custom of putting dolls on display is said to have begun during the Heian period (794-1185), and as such the dolls are all modeled after the hierarchy of the imperial court during that time.

Some Hina-Ningyo displays are very extravagant and elaborate.

Traditionally they are arranged and displayed on a five or seven-tiered stand covered with a red carpet.

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Sets can range from a few hundred-thousand yen to up in the millions! Although, due to the cost and limited space, it is now common to see smaller versions on display in homes. In fact, today it is most common to only display the very top-tier.

The Hina-Ningyo Placements

You can probably guess, seeing as this custom comes from Japan, that there are many rules about the proper placement of these dolls. You can’t just arrange the dolls how you’d like, and wouldn’t you believe it’s actually quite complex.

First Platform:

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The top-tier holds the two most important dolls. These dolls represent the Emperor, called Odari-sama (御内裏様) who is holding a ritual baton, and the Empress, called Ohime-sama (御雛様) who holds a fan.

Between them you’ll see an arrangement of two vases of peach blossoms called a sanbo kazari (三方飾), and to the outside of the platform there are bonbori (雪洞), paper lanterns decorated with plum blossoms or cherry blossoms which represent the spring season.

In traditional arrangements the female is seated at the right side of the male doll, because historically the Empress was always seated to the right side of the Emperor. However, in the 20th century the Empress began to sit on the Emperor’s left side. You’ll find this change has since been incorporated in the modern Hina-Ningyo placements– except in Kyoto where they still place them in the original, traditional position.

Second Platform:

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In the second tier are the three court ladies, sannin kanjo (三人官女)and each one is holding some form of sake equipment.

From left to right:

  • Kuwae no choushi (加えの銚子): backup sake-bearer (standing)
  • Sanpou (三方): sake bearer (seated)
  • Nagae no choushi (長柄の銚子): long-handled sake-bearer (standing)

The accessories placed in between the ladies are called takatsuki (高坏), which are round-topped tables used for serving seasonal sweets.

Third Platform:

This tier features five male musicians, gonin bayashi (五人囃子). Each one holds a musical instrument besides the singer, who holds a fan.

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From left to the right:
  • Taiko (太鼓) drummer (seated)
  • Otsuzumi (大鼓) drummer (standing)
  • Kotsuzumi  (小鼓) drummer (standing)
  • Fue (笛) or Yokobue (横笛) flautist (seated)
  • Utaikata (謡い方), the singer (seated)

Fourth Platform:

The fourth tier displays two ministers (大臣, daijin), who are usually equipped with bow and arrows.

  • Udaijin (右大臣): The Minister of the Right, who is on the left side
  • Sadaijin (左大臣): The Minister of the Left, who is portrayed as much older with a long white beard
Between them are covered bowl-shaped tables called kakebanzen (掛盤膳), as well as stands with hishi-mochi (菱餅) rice cakes, a traditional dish for the Hina Matsuri.

Fifth Platform:

The fifth tier holds the three samurai protectors of the Emperor and Empress.
From left to right:
  • Nakijogo (泣き上戸): the maudlin drinker
  • Okorijogo (怒り上戸): the cantankerous drinker
  • Waraijogo (笑い上戸): the merry drinker
On the leftmost side there is a mandarin orange tree (ukon no tachibana 右近の橘), and one the rightmost is a cherry blossom tree (sakon no sakura 左近の桜).

Sixth Platform:

There are actually no dolls on the sixth tier, and instead used to display a variety of miniature items that can be found within the imperial palace. Common items include:

  • Nagamochi (長持): a long chest used for kimono storage
  • Kyodai (鏡台): a chest of drawers with a small mirror on top
  • Tansu (箪笥): a chest of usually five drawers
  • Hasamibako (挟箱): a small box used for storing clothes, it’s placed on top of the nagamochi
  • Daisu (台子): utensils for a tea ceremony
  • Haribako (針箱): a sewing kit box
  • Hibachi (火鉢): two braziers

Seventh Platform:

Like the sixth platform, this level also contains no dolls. These items however are all things that can be found outside the imperial palace. Some common items are:

  • Jubako (重箱): a set of lacquered food boxes tied together by a cord with a handle
  • Goshoguruma (御所車): a carriage pulled by an ox
  • Gokago (御駕籠): a palanquin

A Day Celebrating Girls

It’s actually quite rare for girls to be celebrated in Asia, and before WWII this event was typically the only time little Japanese girls would be allowed their own parties.

Today, after making visits to the local shrine, girls will still invite their friends over for a party, where they will dress in traditional clothes while eating special sweets and other customary dishes.

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The traditional colors for this festival are white (symbolizing snow or purity)green (symbolizing new growth or health) and pink (symbolizing peach flowers). As such you’ll find these colors are often used in the dishes themselves.

Popular sweets to make would be hishi-mochi or sakura-mochi. Hishi-mochi is what the dolls are enjoying in the display, and are diamond shaped mochi cakes. Colored in the three colors mentioned above, they symbolise the change from winter to spring. Sakura-mochi is another type of mochi rice cake. The rice is made pink and then filled with red bean paste before getting wrapped in a pickled cherry tree leaf.

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Other common dishes for Hina Matsuri are: a type of sushi called chirashi-zushi, a clam soup served in the shell to symbolize good marriage, colored candies or rice crackers, and sweet fermented rice wine.

Hong Kong

I can’t think of a better way to begin the spring season in Japan than by celebrating Hina Matsuri. Filled with happiness, well-wishes, and cute pink and peachy colors, it’s a joyous occasion for everyone involved.

Now we just need to wait for the actual peach and cherry blossoms to bloom!

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How about YOU?

Have you heard of Hina Matsuri?
Would you like to participate in a tradition like this?

38 Comments

  • Wow! Thank you for that informative and very interesting post! I have seen those dolls before and always wondered if they just replicated the Emperor and Empress or was there real meaning behind them.

  • Kiwi says:

    I have always been into Asian culture. They always have such in depth meaning to their historical longevity in their different cutures and its just such a cute and fun continent to me. I would love to visit Japan definitely and the Disney items were a cute touch!

  • This is such a sweet tradition for all the little girls! I love learning about other cultures and their different Holidays that they celebrate, it’s so interesting! I need to visit Japan one day.

  • Carly says:

    I remember reading about this when I was little! My first year of teaching, we actually built a platform, and discussed this celebration. I totally forgot about it, and now I’m going to bring it back!

  • Oh wow…I love this observance, and I haven’t heard of it before. It’s also cool that it is one day after my birthday. I enjoyed seeing the photos of the tiered doll displays. My favorite is the doll in the red kimono in the second pic of your post. She is so pretty.

  • Geanine says:

    These pictures are awesome, what a beautiful way to celebrate girls! A good friend of mine moved to Japan with there two daughters and take part in the festivities. Thanks for sharing.

  • Meg Jerrard says:

    Interesting, thanks for the facts! Always love learning about new traditions from your blog. I was addicted to collecting and displaying beautiful dolls as a child, so this sounds right up my alley :D!

    • Beth Williams says:

      I was never that into dolls, except American Girl dolls. But I still think this is a cute tradition!

  • I have never heard of this tradition. It was very interesting reading about Hina Matsuri! I have never been to Japan, but I am intrigued by the culture. . I would love to sample some of the candy :)

  • Nancy says:

    I have a mild obsession with Japanese things! There’s a store called Daiso here in NorCal (I’m origninally from Canada so everything is ‘new’ to me). Daiso is kinda like a Japanese $1.00 store but everything is $1.50 lol. And they sell these candies there too. yum! I’ve gotten so many awesome yet weird things from that place. I love it.

    • Beth Williams says:

      I LOVE Daiso!! I never knew they were in the US until I went to SF a few months ago. I’m excited to go again in April and will def be hitting up Daiso!

  • MJ says:

    Japan is on my bucket list of places to visit. Thank you sharing this unique tradition with us. I have been looking into collectable dolls for my toddler. Would love to leave her something she can share with her future children that is fun and a great reminder of our bond. This is very elaborate but I like the principles behind it. I think it’s funny the whole display is removed so as not to hinder the girls search for a husband in the future.

    • Beth Williams says:

      It is quite elaborate, but nowadays many people are starting to do simpler versions. It’s a beautiful tradition though. I think your daughter would love something like this!

  • I would love to visit Japan one day. Those dolls are so beautiful and displayed beautifully as well. I would have a blast at a festival and would spend every moment taking photos, lol. I love all of yours.

  • Pika Chu says:

    This has always been my favorite holiday, because like you say, in Asia it is very rare for celebrations for girls. Only in Japan will you find this kind of holiday.

    • Beth Williams says:

      I absolutely love pretty much all Japanese holidays. They’re so unique and special. I would love to someday have a daughter to celebrate Hina Matsuri with!

  • I first heard about Hina Matsuri a few years ago when I was taking Japanese language lessons! I have always loved this holiday! I wish that I still knew as much Japanese as I did from my year’s worth of language lessons…I will have to start my studies up again sometime soon!

    • Beth Williams says:

      I feel like since coming to Hong Kong and trying to learn Cantonese, my Japanese has really suffered. Come summer time I’m throwing myself back into studying Japanese once I have more free time (and will hopefully move back to Japan next year, so that should help too!)

  • Sammi says:

    Nope, never heard of it before, but I was just thinking whilst I was reading it, with things like Valentine’s Day people are so cynical and call it a Hallmark holiday (including myself) it would be much nicer if we had traditons like hina matsuri. i love these posts, tho’ about the culture of where you’re living. How long have you been there? Do you still find things like this a bit of culture shock?

    • Beth Williams says:

      I wish I had more celebrations similar to those in Japan.
      Sadly I’m actually no longer living in Japan, and am currently in Hong Kong (although might be moving back to Japan next year).

      Can’t say I had any culture shock in Japan though as I had extensively studied the country before moving there. I think all the culture shock I experienced was moving back to the US after :)

  • Jen says:

    Great read Beth. Japan has so many interesting and wonderful traditions. I wish western culture had as many traditions as places like Japan as it would make everyday life so much more interesting.

    • Beth Williams says:

      Yeah, unfortunately I don’t find western holidays to be anything special. I mean some aspects of them are nice of course, but I wish some had a bit more history and culture to them :)

  • Japanese culture is so interesting. I hadn’t heard of this tradition before but I love it!

  • Jameela says:

    Very interesting post, I’m fascinated by Japan, although I’m not sure why having never been there. Your pictures are great too, thank you so much, it’s always a pleasure to read your blog and I follow it eagerly. Keep writing…

    • Beth Williams says:

      Thanks Jameela! Japan was one of the first countries I developed an interested in even though I hadn’t been there yet either. I think it’s just because the culture is so different from anywhere else!

  • I really enjoy reading your posts on traditions. It is a great way to learn about other cultures. Since I normally do all my travel without guides and fast pace, it is hard to dive deep into the cultures like this one unless talking to locals and being there at this certain time. Great post!

    • Beth Williams says:

      Thanks Angela! Studying culture is a huge part of what keeps me traveling. I love learning about cultures different from my own– and especially Japanese culture… which I guess that’s why I got my degree in it! haha

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