Hinamatsuri – Girls’ Day (雛祭り)

If Japan has a special day designated for boys, namely Tango no Sekku (端午の節句), why can’t it designate another special day just for girls? After all, we are living in a world where gender equality is widely recognized, right? So, isn’t it just fair for the Japanese to celebrate another day in honour of girls? Well, the title says it all. Japan, after all, does have a special festival set aside for girls as well, just like how boys have a special festival set aside for them.

This festival is none other than Hinamatsuri (雛祭り) or Girls’ Day. Known also as the Japanese Doll Festival or Momo no Sekku (桃の節句), which literally means the Peach Festival, this festival falls annually on March 3. In imperial times, when the Chinese lunar calendar was still in use in Japan, it was celebrated on the third day of the third month every year. However, after Japan’s major shift to the Gregorian solar calendar, Hinamatsuri was then moved to March 3. Despite the fact that Hinamatsuri is not a national holiday in Japan, it is still one of the most important observances in the Land of the Rising Sun.

So, why is this festival widely observed although it is not currently a national holiday? That’s because it is a very important day for appreciating the happiness and well-being of girls all over Japan. On this day, family members appreciate the presence of young girls or daughters within their families, hoping that they will eventually grow up to become beautiful, healthy and prosperous women. Nevertheless, some also perceive this day as an occasion to promote filial piety and loyalty towards one’s parents.

Young girls joyfully celebrating Hinamatsuri (雛祭り) or Girls' Day

Perhaps some of you may be wondering why this festival is also known as the Doll Festival or the Peach Festival. Well, the association of dolls with girls may justify the reason behind this festival being referred to as the Doll Festival. Basically, one of the main features of Hinamatsuri is the display of traditional dolls, which I’ll be covering shortly. As to why it is also known as the Peach Festival or Momo no Sekku, I’ll be covering this later in this article, when I discuss the origins and history behind this festival.

So, how exactly is Hinamatsuri celebrated by the vast majority of the Japanese? Being known also as the Japanese Doll Festival, what does this suggest? Dolls, of course! Yes, dolls form the most integral part of the entire festival. Where would this festival be without dolls?

Beginning in mid-February to late February, it is customary for Japanese families with daughters to start displaying traditional dolls in their houses. These ceremonial dolls are known as hina-ningyo (雛人形) and are dressed in imperial court garments worn during the Heian Period (平安時代, Heian-jidai) (794 – 1185). A complete set of the doll display normally consists of 15 dolls arranged in a fixed order on seven tiers, along with items used by the Japanese royalty during the Heian Period. The arrangement of these dolls is very much inspired by the Japanese imperial court of the Heian Period.

A complete set of hina-ningyo (雛人形) display commonly seen during Hinamatsuri

Let us now have a closer look at the manner of arrangement of these unique dolls. As you can see in the picture above, this is a complete set of hina-ningyo display, with seven tiers or platforms in total. The platforms are typically covered with red carpet, known simply as mousen (毛氈). At the topmost platform, the two most important dolls are placed, namely the Emperor (御内裏様, Odairi-sama) and the Empress (御雛様, Ohina-sama). The Emperor doll holds a ritual baton (笏, shaku), while the Empress doll holds a fan and is dressed in the juunihitoe (十二単), a traditional twelve-layered kimono that was commonly worn by court ladies in imperial Japan. These two dolls are placed in front of a golden folding screen called byobu (屏風, byoubu). Beside them, at both ends of the platform, are two lamp stands known as bonbori (雪洞), with lanterns made of paper or silk placed above them, known as hibukuro (火袋). In between these two dolls are accessories called sanbou kazari (三方飾り), consisting of two vases called kuchibana (口花).

Dolls and items displayed on the first three platforms of a complete hina-ningyo display

The second platform is arranged with three court ladies called san-nin kanjo (三人官女), who are each holding a set of sake (酒) equipment. (Sake is a traditional Japanese rice wine.) Each of these ladies is given specific names. If you were to look at the picture above (looking at the display from the viewer’s perspective), the court lady standing on the right is called the long-handled sake-bearer (長柄の銚子, Nagae no choushi), while the one standing on the left is called the backup sake-bearer (加えの銚子, Kuwae no choushi). The court lady sitting in the middle is called the Sanpou (三方). In between each of these court ladies are stands with round tabletops called takatsuki (高坏), with seasonal delicacies placed on them.

On the third platform, you can see the dolls of five male musicians being placed there, collectively known as Go-nin bayashi (五人囃子). Two of them are arranged standing, while three are seated. Each of these court musician dolls holds a musical instrument except the singer, who holds a fan. They each have specific names for themselves, which are listed below. Based on the viewer’s perspective, starting from left to right are:

1) Taiko (太鼓), holds small drum, seated
2) Ootsuzumi (大鼓), holds large drum, standing
3) Kotsuzumi (小鼓), holds hand drum, standing
4) Yokofue (横笛), holds flute, seated
5) Utaikata (謡い方) the singer, holds a folding fan, seated

Dolls and items displayed on the fourth to seventh platforms

Looking now on the fourth platform, there are the two ministers collectively known as Zuishin (随身). These two ministers are the Minister of the Right (右大臣, Udaijin) and the Minister of the Left (左大臣, Sadaijin). From the viewer’s perspective, the Minister of the Right is on the viewer’s left and the Minister of the Left is on the viewer’s right. Since the Minister of the Left was considered superior in the traditional imperial court, its doll is made with a long white beard to resemble an old and wise man. The Minister of the Right, who is traditionally considered to be more inferior, is made to appear much younger. Between the two ministers are covered bowl tables known as kakebanzen (掛盤膳), together with diamond-shaped stands called hishidai (菱台), bearing diamond-shaped rice cakes called hishimochi (菱餅).

On the fifth platform are three samurai dolls, who are said to be the protectors of the Emperor and the Empress. Each of them bears a specific name. Based on the viewer’s perspective, the order of arrangement from left to right is such:

1. Nakijougo (泣き上戸), maudlin drinker
2. Okorijougo (怒り上戸), cantankerous drinker
3. Waraijougo (笑い上戸), merry drinker

As you can see in the picture of the complete hina-ningyo display set, the fifth platform holds two plant replicas at each end, whereby the three samurai dolls are placed in between them. On the viewer’s left is the Right Mandarin Orange Tree or Ukon no tachibana (右近の橘), while on the viewer’s right is the Left Sakura Tree or Sakon no sakura (左近の桜). The reason behind the naming and placement of these two trees lies in the fact that in imperial times, the mandarin orange tree was always planted to the right of the Japanese imperial court, while the sakura tree was planted to the left.

Let us now move on to the sixth platform of the complete hina-ningyo display. From the viewer’s perspective, these are the items arranged from left to right:

1. Tansu (箪笥), a large chest with five drawers
2. Nagamochi (長持), a long chest used to store kimono, together with 2 hasamibako (挟箱), or smaller clothing boxes, placed on top of the nagamochi
3. Kyoudai (鏡台), a chest with drawers and a mirror placed above it
4. Haribako (針箱), a sewing kit box
5. Two hibachi (火鉢), braziers
6. Daisu (台子), with a set of ocha dougu (お茶道具), used in a tea ceremony

Lastly, from the viewer’s perspective, the seventh platform holds these items from left to right:

1. Juubako (重箱), a set of food boxes
2. Gokago (御駕篭), a palanquin
3. Goshoguruma (御所車) or gyuusha (牛車), an ox-drawn carriage

A beautiful painting depicting young girls merrily celebrating Hinamatsuri

For any girl, her first Hinamatsuri is known as hatsu-zekku (初節句), in which her parents or grandparents will buy her a doll display and a complete set of dolls, if they can afford. Otherwise, they will just buy her a display and a few dolls initially, gradually adding to the dolls each year until the entire collection is complete. In some families, the complete set of dolls is passed down from generation to generation, and is considered a highly-prized family heritage. It is a custom to display these dolls in the days prior to Hinamatsuri and to immediately remove them once the festival is over. This is due to a common superstition stating that the slower the dolls are removed after the festival, the harder it will be to marry off the family’s daughters.

Well, it’s really unfair to look at a particular festival without considering the special food associated with it, right? Hence, let me now cover on the unique delicacies associated with this unique “feminine” festival. Basically, one of the main special delicacies of Hinamatsuri is a diamond-shaped three-layered rice cake called hishimochi (菱餅). As a matter of fact, hishimochi is traditionally placed on the fourth platform of the doll display, as I’ve mentioned earlier in this article. The three layers of hishimochi are coloured red (or pink), white and green, which respectively represent chasing away evil spirits, purity and health.

Hishimochi (菱餅)- a diamond-shaped, three-layered rice cake

Besides hishimochi, there is also another dish called chirashizushi (ちらし寿司), which literally means “scattered sushi” in Japanese. Just like its name suggests, chirashizushi consists of a bowl of sushi rice mixed or “scattered” with various ingredients, which are very often the choice of the chef. In addition to these delicacies, there is also the arare (あられ), which is a type of bite-sized cracker made from glutinous rice and flavoured with soy sauce. Although arare crackers are available in Japan throughout the whole year, colourful arare crackers are only made especially for Girls’ Day. Alongside all these special delights is a clam dish involving soup served with clams still in their shell. This dish is often deemed to be a significant part of the festival, as clams are said to symbolize a truly united couple, owing to the fact that only a pair of clam shells from the same clam can fit perfectly with each other.

Chirashizushi (ちらし寿司) - "scattered sushi"

Hina-arare (雛あられ) - special crackers made for Hinamatsuri

As for drinks, an indispensable type of drink which is unique to Hinamatsuri is known as shirozake (白酒), literally meaning “white wine.” Shirozake is a variant of the traditional Japanese rice wine known as sake (酒), in which the difference is that shirozake is sweet in taste and has much lower alcohol content compared to normal sake. Normally, men would celebrate Hinamatsuri by drinking normal sake, while women would enjoy shirozake.

Shirozake (白酒) - "white wine"

After reading so much about how this unique “feminine” festival is observed nowadays in Japan, you must now be wondering about how this festival actually came into existence amongst the Japanese people. Well, to be honest, the exact origin of this festival remains unknown till today, since there are different theories and stories that relate the festival’s origin.

If you recall what I mentioned earlier in this article, you’d remember that Girls’ Day is also referred to as the Peach Festival, or Momo no Sekku (桃の節句). Why is this so? What do girls have to do with peaches? Actually, there is really no correlation at all between girls and peaches. To find out the reason behind this, let us review one of the theories behind the origins of Hinamatsuri, which brings us to imperial China.

Since the imperial era of China, peach blossoms have been highly valued in Chinese culture. Due to this, the period around the third day of the third month in the Chinese lunar calendar was especially noted for being the blooming period for peach blossoms. It was also customary around this time for the ancient Chinese to make simple paper dolls and float them down a nearby river, based on their belief that by doing so, the dolls would carry away all their misfortunes, sicknesses and miseries. As such, the third day of the third month on the Chinese calendar became a day for family outing, when families not only released paper dolls down a river, but also organized picnics under peach blossoms.

Peach blossoms - a highly-valued element of nature in Chinese culture

When this element of Chinese culture was absorbed into Japanese culture, this day then became known as Momo no Sekku, or the Peach Festival, in relation to the blooming of peach blossoms. The custom of floating paper dolls down a river was also adopted by the Japanese, who then called it Hina-nagashi (雛流し). Initially, this festival was a day of outing for both males and females alike, but during the Edo Period (江戸時代) (1603 – 1868), it became more popularized as a festival for girls. The paper dolls that were used to carry away one’s misfortunes down the river gradually gave rise to Hinamatsuri dolls that were displayed indoors. It was then that the name “Hinamatsuri” came into existence, in which this name literally means “Festival of the Princess.”

Another commonly held theory about the origin of Girls’ Day dates back to the Heian Period (794 – 1185) of Japan. During this period, the Japanese imperial courtiers and aristocrats considered it a tradition to arrange ceremonial dolls on a doll display consisting of seven tiers. These dolls were made and arranged according to the Japanese imperial court, with both the emperor and empress dolls at the topmost tier. Dolls of musicians, court ladies and ministers were also made and arranged on the doll display. In addition to these dolls were tiny replicas of common items and equipment used in the imperial court, as what can be seen in today’s complete set of doll display. This tradition was said to have become even more popular during the Edo Period, in which it then became associated with Momo no Sekku or the Peach Festival.

Although Hinamatsuri is not officially declared a public holiday in Japan, it still remains as one of Japan’s most important annual observances. Indeed, the fact that this festival is specially reserved for girls has undoubtedly become a source of fascination for many non-Japanese. Perhaps Hinamatsuri is the Japanese way of recognizing and respecting gender equality, after all.

Hello Kitty depicted as the Emperor and Empress hina-dolls

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