Girls and dolls

By on March 6, 2008

Photo © Elena Derevstova

Hina Matsuri or the Dolls’ Festival (hina=doll, matsuri=festival) is held on March 3 in Japan. It is also sometimes called Momo no Sekku, the Peach Festival, as the time coincides with the blooming of peach blossoms, or Girl’s Day. On this day, families wish daughters happy and successful lives by displaying a set of ornamental dolls, hina ningyo. These dolls are dressed in the court dress of the Heian period (A.D. 794-1185) and are traditionally displayed on a five- or seven-tiered platform covered with a red carpet. These days, however, due to the cost of the dolls and limited space at home, many families only display the top layer or two.

The top tier displays two dolls symbolizing the Emperor, (Odairi sama or Obina) and the Empress, (Ohina sama or Mebina). The next tier shows the three court ladies, each of them holding a sake filler. The one who stands up and holds the sake filler with the long handle is called nagae no choushi; the other one who also stands with the sake-filler is called kuwae no choushi; and the one sitting down is the sanpou.
The third tier has the five male musicians, go-nin-bayashi. Four of them hold a musical instrument, while the fifth one, who is a singer, holds a folding fan.
The fourth tier has two ministers. The Sadaijin is the Minister of the Left, and the Udaijin, the Minister of the Right. In the ancient Japanese court, the left side was considered superior to the right. An elder and a wise man was often chosen as the Sadaijin, so a sadaijin doll has a long white beard and looks older than an udaijin doll. The fifth tier displays three servants.

The fourth, fifth and lower tiers also display a number of miniature furniture, carriages, tableware and tools. Other items to be displayed are a mandarin orange tree, traditionally placed to the right in the Japanese court and a cherry tree, planted to the left.

Hina Matsuri traces its origin to an ancient Japanese custom called hina nagashi (doll floating) where grass and straw hina dolls were set afloat on a boat and sent down a river, supposedly taking troubles or bad spirits with them. Having started in the Edo Period, as the festival grew over the years, the dolls became more elaborate and expensive and could no longer be set adrift. The trend then changed to buying these dolls, displaying them and saving them for the following year’s festival.

The customary drink offered during the festival is amazake, a sweet and non-alcoholic version of sake. Traditional food served are hina arare (tiny pastel-colored rice cakes) chirashizushi (scattered sushi—a bowl of sushi rice mixed with various colorful ingredients) and sakura mochi (bean paste-filled rice cakes with cherry leaves). During the Hina Matsuri, families with daughters often invite their friends over to show off their dolls and enjoy some sweet treats together.

About Carol Hui Akiyama