Celebrate Hinamatsuri: Japan's doll festival

The impressive array of hina dolls across all the stone steps leading to Tomisaki Shrine is a must-see!
The impressive array of hina dolls across all the stone steps leading to Tomisaki Shrine is a must-see!

Celebrate Hinamatsuri: Japan's doll festival

by Efeel
Live Japan

Hinamatsuri, also known as Doll's Day or Girls' Day, is a traditional Japanese festival celebrated on March 3 each year. The festival is dedicated to young girls, and the centerpiece of the celebration is the display of hina dolls, which represent the Emperor, Empress, attendants, and musicians of the Heian period (794-1185).

This unique Japanese festival is celebrated differently depending on the region you're in, but most customs will include some similar features, like a set of cute hina dolls, peach flower decorations, as well as festive food such as hina-arare (multi-colored rice crackers) and chirashizushi (sliced raw fish with rice).

What's the story behind how March 3 come to be celebrated as Girls' Day in Japan? Here we shed some light on this interesting Japanese festival and share how you can enjoy it during your trip as well!

1. Hina Matsuri History: Why is the Japanese Doll Festival Celebrated?

Hinamatsuri - a festival with more than 1,000 years of history!

There are a few theories about how Hinamatsuri got started, but the likeliest one is that it originated from China's Shangsi Festival that was introduced into Japan as a sekku (traditional festival) when Japan adopted the Chinese calendar system and the customs it came with.

Other traditional festivals on the calendar are the well-known Dragon Boat Festival (5th day of the 5th month) and Qixi Festival (7th day of the 7th month).

As you may have noticed, festival days usually fell on odd-numbered months on the same day as the month, as these dates were considered auspicious.

Shangsi Festival was originally held as a festival to ward off badness by setting dolls on a river, so that they could drift away with the participant's misfortunes, in a ritual called nagashibina (drifting doll). As time went by, these dolls took on more prominence and instead of setting them on rivers, they were placed inside homes as decorations.

Eventually, these dolls came to be known as hina dolls and were used among the aristocrats as toys in pretend play activities known as hihina-asobi (also called hiina-asobi or hina-asobi). And that was how the Hinamatsuri we are familiar with today was born.

The modern festival date falls on March 3, following the Gregorian calendar instead of the lunar calendar. The date, along with its objective of celebrating the growth and happiness of young girls, is said to have been introduced during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868).

Gotenkazari (depicted), massive seven-tier platforms with a full set of 15 dolls, gorgeously dressed hina dolls - hinamatsuri stands come in all shapes and sizes!

2. What do the hina dolls and peach flower decorations symbolize?

Peach blossom - a Hinamatsuri symbol of equal importance as hina dolls

Hinamatsuri is also known as Momo no Sekku (peach traditional festival), because peach blossoms were used to celebrate the original Shangsi Festival. These beautiful blossoms were viewed as auspicious plants with the ability to dispel misfortune, ward off evil, and grant longevity.

The modern festival has kept this traditional aspect alive in the form of peach blossom decorations. That the bright pink petals are closely associated with the newness of spring and young girls - both elements related to Hinamatsuri - is a bonus!

3. Types of hina dolls and how to decorate them

Add glamorous accessories like artificial sakura and mandarin orange flowers too!

Traditionally, the hina doll is believed to protect the young girls in the family by carrying their illnesses and misfortunes for them.

Most houses will thus at least have a pair of male and female dolls in storage. The make of the doll determines whether they are classified as ishо̄gi (costumed) dolls or kimekomi (grooved) dolls.

As the name suggests, ishо̄gi dolls have their costumes put on them as we would with normal clothing. As for kimekomi dolls, the process of adorning them is a bit more complex.

First of all, the doll's body is made with solidified paulownia powder mixed with glue. Grooves are then cut out on the body and kinran (gold or silver brocade woven into intricate designs) or yūzen (a dye technique that applies rice paste to the cloth to prevent color transfer) fabric are glued on the body, with the edges tucked into the grooves.

The most extravagant way of decorating hina dolls is to place them on a seven-tier dankazari doll stand. There's also a shorter version with just two or three tiers, sometimes called the dekazari. Minimalists may prefer the shinnо̄kazari, which is one tier only and contains just the main pair of dairibina (imperial dolls).

Of course, these are just the most common types that can be found. There are plenty of other differently designed doll stands available as well.

All platform-based doll stands are collectively called the hinadan, and this is the most prominent and iconic decoration piece of Hinamatsuri that people think about when the festival is mentioned.

Although the order of the dolls on the red carpet can change depending on region and family tradition, the dolls represent a Heian period wedding, around which the couple are surrounded by their court. Since dolls can be fairly expensive - costing around $700 for a two-tier set and $2,600+ for a 5-tier set - these collections tend to become family heirlooms.

・Top Platform: This is occupied by only two dolls, the dairi-bina. They are known as the imperial dolls though they do not represent the Imperial family.

・Second Platform: This holds the san-nin kanjo, three court ladies who serve drinks to the male and female dolls.

・Third Platform: This holds the go-nin bayashi, five male musicians of the court, each of who hold an instrument except for the singer, who holds a fan.

・Fourth Platform: Here are two ministers, zuijin, who are alternatively known as the couple's bodyguards. Displayed here as well are tables with gifts for the couple.

・Fifth Platform: Three helpers (/protectors) - the shichо̄ - of the couple are displayed here: one is a crying drinker; one an angry drinker; and one a laughing drinker. Also displayed here are a mandarin orange tree and a sakura tree.

・Sixth and Seventh (Bottom) Platforms: Displayed here are a variety of items used within the couple's household, including furniture, storage chests, mirrors, sewing kits, utensils and more. Ox-drawn carts may also be displayed on the seventh platform.

Hanging decorations made of mini dolls

The doll stands are to be set up and decorated between the first day of spring (around February 3) to around mid-March. At the very least, it has to be up one week before Hinamatsuri is celebrated on March 3! Rushing to put everything up on March 2 is known as ichikakazari (overnight decoration), and this is something to be avoided as it is considered inauspicious in the eyes of most.

4. How Japanese Celebrate Girls' Day Today: Famous Hinamatsuri events

With so many events being held everywhere, everyone can enjoy the festival, no matter their age

Thinking of celebrating Hinamatsuri? With the plethora of events taking place all over Japan during this period, from impressive displays made with thousand of hina dolls to exhibitions featuring rare and unusual hina dolls, you'll be completely spoiled for choice here! Pick an event and get up to speed about the origins of this festival to appreciate it even more!

Katsuura Big Hinamatsuri: Painting the town red with festivities

The impressive array of hina dolls across all the stone steps leading to Tomisaki Shrine is a must-see!

At the Katsuura Big Hina Matsuri, Hina dolls welcome visitors from the stone steps of Tomisaki Shrine and the special hinadan (doll alter) of Kakuoji Temple.

The Big Hina Festival has been held in Katsuura City since 2001 by affiliates of the National Katsuura Network. All 1,800 Hina dolls lining the stone steps of Tomisaki Shrine are set up for display every morning, and stowed away safely each night.

Each store in the shopping district is also decorated ingeniously with Hina dolls all throughout the event period. That's what Hina Matsuri is all about!

Goshuin stamp marking the occasion (Photo: Instagram @thetimsullivan)

2023 Katsuura Big Hina Matsuri Information

  • Dates: February 24 - March 3
  • Time: 9:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.
  • Venue: Around Tomisaki Shrine

Katsuura Big Hinamatsuri かつうらビッグひな祭り
Address: Hama-katsuura, Katsuura City, Chiba Prefecture 299-5233
Nearest Station: 10-minute walk from Katsuura Station on the JR Lines
Phone: 0470-73-6641 (Big Hinamatsuri Executive Committee *Katsuura City Tourism & Industry Division Section)
Admission: Free to view
Closed: Open daily
Event Period: Late February to early March every year
Venue: Various places in Katsuura City, Chiba Prefecture and Tomisaki Shrine

Machikado Hina Meguri: Sightsee, create, and eat hina doll-related products at Iwatsuki, the "City of Dolls"

Seventy shops in front of the train station and elsewhere will display hina dolls during the festive season

Iwatsuki is a ward in Saitama City that's well-known as the top doll-producing district of Japan. As such, it has been affectionately nicknamed the City of Dolls. Every year, the town holds the Machikado Hinameguri (Touring the Streets of Hina Dolls) event, which is a collection of multiple activities planned around the themes of sightseeing, creating, and eating hina doll-related products.

For the sightseeing portion, participants are invited to join a stamp rally that will bring them on a tour around the town, visiting master craftsmen and historic shop dolls. Create some hanging decorations made of mini-hina dolls while you're at it!

Also, you'll definitely pass by one or two eateries selling limited-time festive food, so take your time to try some out too.

2023 Machikado Hina Meguri Information

  • Dates: February 23 - March 12
  • Time: From 10:00 a.m. (Closing times vary by venue)
  • Where: Shops around East Exit of Iwatsuki Station, Saitama Prefecture

Annual Iwatsuki City of Dolls Machikado Hinameguri 第19回人形のまち岩槻 まちかど雛めぐり
Address: 1-1, Honcho, Saitama Iwatsuki-ku, Saitama 339-0057
Nearest Station: Immediately at Iwatsuki Station on the Tobu Railway
Phone: 070-1535-8177 (10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.)
Admission: Free to view
Closed: Open daily
Venue: Shops around the East Exit of Iwatsuki Station, Saitama Prefecture

Hina no Tsurushikazari Festival: Swim in a sea of hina hanging decorations

Traditional hina dolls surrounded by modern hanging decorations - it seldom gets more Japanese than this!

There is a custom of putting up a pair of hanging decorations on both sides of the doll stand during Hinamatsuri in Shizuoka Prefecture's Izu Inatori.

These hanging decorations are passed down from generation to generation, and some will be on display in four venues around town during the Hina no Tsurushikazari Festival (Hina Hanging Decorations Festival), which will be open for touring until Thursday, March 31.

The main venue for the decorations will be Hina no Yakata, a building located inside Inatori Cultural Park. Feel free to stroll along the streets nearby as well, as many shops will be selling souvenirs and other goodies you can get to commemorate your visit here.

2023 Hina no Tsurushikazari Festival Information

  • Dates: January 20 - March 31
  • Time: 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
  • Where: A few places, including Hina no Yakata, Inatori Cultural Park, Shizuoka Prefecture

Hina no Tsurushikazari Festival 2023 雛のつるし飾りまつり 2023
Address: 1729, Inatori, Kamogun Higashiizucho, Shizuoka 413-0411
Nearest Station: 15-minute walk from Izu-Inatori Station on the Izukyuko Line
Phone: 0557-95-2901 (Inatori Onsen Ryokan Association)
Admission: 500 yen for Hina no Yakata (tax included)
Closed: Hina no Yakata is open daily during the event period
Venues: A few places, including Hina no Yakata, Inatori Cultural Park, Shizuoka Prefecture

Hyakudan Hinamatsuri

In Tokyo, the famous Hundred-Steps Staircase at Meguro Gajoen, a designated tangible cultural property of Tokyo, is the venue for the Hyakudan Hinamatsuri ("hyakudan" actually means one-hundred steps). At this event, an array of vintage Hinamatsuri dolls from Kyushu are displayed.

Particularly Kyushu has a very rich Hinamatsuri culture - all of which can be discovered in around 1,000 different exhibits from all of Kyushu's seven prefectures, such as hina dolls from noble weddings of the Edo period, ancient dolls called shin-hime, ritual dolls used to pray to the deities of mountains, and many more.

In 2023, instead of the Hyakudan Hinamatsuri being held, a special event showcasing handicrafts and paintings with auspicious motifs will run from January 1 through March 12 from 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. More information (and tickets) can be found at Hotel Gajoen Tokyo's website (in Japanese).

Meguro Gajoen 目黒雅叙園
Address: 1-8-1, Shimomeguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo, 153-0064
View Map
Nearest Station: Meguro Station (JR Yamanote Line / Tokyo Metro Namboku Line / Toei Mita Line / Tokyu Meguro Line), 3 minutes on foot
Phone Number: 03-3491-4111

The Edo Nagashibina Festival

Image of a nagashibina

The Nagashibina Festival translates to the festival of floating dolls and is basically just that. Ancient Japanese put little dolls in baskets and set those afloat on rivers and streams, as a prayer to shield the children from disaster and for safe and healthy growth.

This old tradition has made its way to modern-day Japan, especially Tokyo, revived in 1985 for the first time in decades.

At the end of February or the beginning of March every year, around 3,000 people, young and old, participate in the Edo Nagashibina Festival in Asakusa, letting paper dolls float on the Sumida River to both pray for children and encourage them to shape their future with gentleness and kindness.

2023 Edo Nagashibina Festival Information

  • Date: February 26
  • Time: 11:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
  • Where: Along the Sumida River Terrace near Asakusa

Sumida Park 隅田公園
Address: Sumida-ku, Tokyo, 131-0033
View Map
Nearest Station: Asakusa Station (Tokyo Metro Ginza Line / Toei Asakusa Line / Tobu Isesaki Line (Tobu Sky Tree Line) / Tsukuba Express), 5 minutes on foot
View Details

5. Celebrate Hina matsuri with these auspicious treats!

Chirashizushi is a Hinamatsuri staple. The vibrant colors calls to mind the freshness of spring

Like every other festival in Japan, Hinamatsuri comes with its own set of traditional festive food, using seasonal ingredients from early spring.

Clam soup that calls to mind early spring

Clam soup is the representative dish here, as it symbolizes a married couple who complement each other perfectly, like how the two shells of a clam are not complete without each other.

The colors used in hishimochi are rich with symbolisms. Green represents health and new encounters, white represents purity and white snow, whereas peach, pink, or red represents peach flowers

Another treat often associated with Hinamatsuri is the hishimochi, a rhombus-shaped rice cake that is colored green, white, and pink.

Hina-arare is eaten to wish for the happiness of young girls throughout the year

Hina-arare, mentioned in the outset, is another famous snack of the festival, and these rice crackers are usually colored pink, green, yellow, and white, each color representing a season.

Finally, there's the ever-popular chirashizushi, a rice bowl topped with ingredients like lotus roots, shrimps, and other food believed to bring good luck and longevity.

Hinamatsuri is a festival that embodies the well-wishes parents have for their daughters, such as wanting them to be happy and healthy always. If you would like to participate in this special occasion, it's really very simple! Set up and decorate your doll stand, grab some auspicious takeout food, and celebrate Hinamatsuri 2023 with the rest of Japan from the comfort of your own accommodations!

* Content, price, or stock condition subject to change without prior notification. Check the websites for details and latest information.

English translation by: Huimin Pan and Krys Suzuki

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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