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Happy Hina Matsuri, otherwise known as Dolls’ Day or Girls’ Day! At this time, families with young daughters decorate with elaborate dolls and eat delicate delicacies.

“But wait!” some of you may say. “Hina Matsuri is March 3! It’s April 2, so you’re a month late.”

To which I say, “No, I’m not! I live in the San’in region!”

Recall this lengthy explanation of why the modern Japanese calender, in an attempt to synchronize with the West and retain tradition, is more than a little complicated and maybe a touch crazy. For our purposes here, suffice to say the Gregorian calender tends to be roughly a month off the old Japanese agricultural calendar, and so holidays that mark the changing of seasons or events in nature may be celebrated weeks before these seasonal changes. Something that marks the beginning of spring feels even less festive when you’re in a colder area, so some areas–such as the Tohoku region and the San’in region–choose to celebrate the holiday according to the old calendar as opposed to the Gregorian calendar.

While today may be April 2 according to the calendar in broad use, it is 3/3 according to the old one, and Hina Matsuri as it is traditionally celebrated is going on today.

What do I mean by “traditional”? That depends on how far back you want to look, though there is “traditional” merit in how it is celebrated in any given time period. While the “traditional” mental image of the celebration may call to mind a multi-layered display of Heian courtiers and their accessories, there are of course modern families who find this a pain for the price and go with cuter, smaller renditions to enjoy the festivities. In the smaller towns where the houses are bigger, however, you’re somewhat more likely to encounter people with room in their homes for the full sets. Some friends of mine in Yasugi have three daughters, and they’ve had three complete sets on display throughout March and through now.

Part of the fun of observing the dolls is seeing all their unique expressions. Which doll has what pose and expression is generally determined by its position in the set, but it was fun to compare them between the three sets.

Or if you’re too lazy or cheap to get a set of dolls to display, or even if you don’t have any daughters to celebrate, anyone can easily enjoy the dainty atmosphere decked out in visions of peach blossoms, red, white, and green sweets, and luxurious kimonos and decorations.

I didn't plan on celebrating Hina Matsuri, but that was a delicious shortcake.

I didn’t plan on celebrating Hina Matsuri, but that was a delicious shortcake.

The doll set as we know it today didn’t really become a tradition until Japan was westernizing, though. The practice of making wishes for a girl’s bright future by making use of dolls goes back even further.

In fact, it didn’t even have to be for girls. We have records from the Heian era about a millenium ago that men as well used dolls in a special bina-asobi ritual. Dolls were not so much to be a toy as to represent the form of a human (hence, they are called ningyo today, a different pronunciation of the characters 人形 for hitogata as they used to be called, which literally mean “human form”). Representing human form gives them the ability to take human curses in our place. That’s great and keeps us from getting sick and all, but you can’t just keep that cesspool of bad luck with you. After taking the fall for us, the dolls must be banished so that the curses stay far away.

This is where we get Nagashi-bina, the ritual floating of dolls down the stream or out into the ocean. This grand sending-off is the more direct origin of Hina Matsuri as we know it today, though you could go back hundreds of years even before the Heian era to see some of the earliest uses of dolls for spiritual purposes in Japan, and you’d have to back centuries and centuries further in Chinese history to see where they may have even gotten that idea, what with burying dolls with deceased rulers as opposed to burying live people with them. Given the milleniums of dolls having the bad luck of taking away our bad luck, it makes the notion of a doll hanging around for amusement purposes something ponder-worthy.

In late February leading up through March 3, it’s easy to find doll displays either in museums, public gathering spaces, or personal homes, but what about this darker side of doll use?

The display dolls we now consider traditional come back into the mix here. There is a thought that old, damaged dolls should be allowed to retire, as by that time they have acquired a soul of their own and grown tired from their duties in providing good luck to little girls. Thus, they are usually entrusted to a shrine as opposed to haphazardly thrown out, and while some have taken on unique new lives in artistic displays, there are some shrines that simply store hundreds of these elaborate dolls. If this sort of thing interests you, might be able to visit these kinds of shrines around Kyoto and Wakayama to see the store houses in March, or if that’s not your thing you should beware of these rooms of soulless(?) eyes staring back at you!

You don’t usually find these dolls floating down the river, though… well, nowadays, you typically don’t find any dolls floating down the river. Tokyo makes a good show of it with sending paper dolls down a pink slide to the water, though.

However, then you have Mochigase, a district of Tottori City that has maintained a local practice with its roots in the Edo period. Paper dolls are arranged with sweets and other decorations on a woven straw basket, then sent down the Sendai River (not to be confused with a city in Miyagi Prefecture). This river runs through Tottori City on the way to the Sea of Japan, and runs right by the location of the Nagashibina-no-Yakata, a museum dedicated to the practice of Nagashi-bina and other types of Japanese dolls from different locales and time periods. Mochigase’s doll rituals frequently take place at the banks of the river around here, and it is one of the biggest events of its kind maintained throughout Japan. Smaller cities in Tottori also have their own traditional styles of handmade dolls and similar Nagashi-bina events as well. Unfortunately, I can’t be in Tottori today, so I’ve hunted around for some resources and borrowed from photos instead (click for the sources and more galleries!).

Click for source--there is a whole gallery of semi-official cuteness-in-kimono waiting for you.  FYI, that is the doll museum in the background.

Click for source–there is a whole gallery of semi-official cuteness-in-kimono waiting for you.
FYI, that is the doll museum in the background.

Click for source–Ojisan Jake has a couple of entries about the content of the museum, so I highly recommend check his blog out. These are the sorts of dolls being set afloat down the Sendai River.

Finally, here is a brief article about teaching the not-so-stereotypical sides of Hina-Matsuri to high school students studying Japanese.

I may not be there in person today, but that can’t stop me from enjoying some dainty (and more traditional) Hina Matsuri snacks here.