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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.



Yukata season is starting to wind down now, but there are still summer festivals at which to wear them and play games to take home real goldfish (not that I would want to make the poor things suffer in the heat of my apartment while I’m away!). Despite this feeling like the hottest time of the year, we’re technically already in autumn according to the 24 periods of the old lunisolar calendar!

While wearing kimono comes with a certain amount of financial investment and necessary items to achieve the ideal shape on which to base an array of tasteful aesthetics, yukata do not require so much fuss. Unlike kimono, they are usually made of a breathable fabric like cotton and do not require much–if anything?–underneath them, so they are ideal for the hot and humid summers of Japan. Even in my kimono class and other culture classes for which classic dress is standard, they make special allowances for people to wear yukata instead of traditional kimono for practice.

If you have ever stayed at any hotel in Japan, you might have been provided yukata to lounge and sleep in, but there are yukata more proper for wearing in public. They’re cheap enough that most visitors to Japan can afford one, and some fancy hotels in resort areas, like Tamatsukuri Onsen on the south side of Matsue, provide them to the guests to wear around the area anyway. Of course, if you’re just passing through for the day, you can rent them from Himekoromo at the Hakobune Tamatsukuri Art Box. While we’re on that topic, you could always get a brief kimono experience at Karakoro Art Studio closer to Matsue Castle, too.

Just because yukata don’t inheritantly require as much fuss as normal kimono doesn’t mean that you can toss out all the rules of kimono (left side over right!!!), and it doesn’t mean people don’t fuss over them anyway. You see people wearing them all over the place at festivals, and since you can get away with any kind of pattern on a yukata (seeing as the material automatically makes it appropriate for summer, even if its covered in a snowflake pattern), people get very creative with them. It’s gotten very common to see girls with thick make-up, bleach-blonde hair with giant crepe flowers, and sparkly gauze sashes tied over the regular obi (belt). What with the freedom they offer, crafty people are getting craftier and craftier.

For the people just going for a traditional yukata look–the very mental image of which conjures nostalgic memories of summmer, and all the shaved ice, festivals, and refreshing (if infrequent) gusts of wind–there are obi that are tied with strings and have a seperate pre-tied bow that you just stick in the back.

As I call them, “Cheater Obi”–though I’ve happily been cheating for the past six years since attaining my first yukata.

Seeing as I am supposed to be able to wear kimono now, I did take the time to learn how to tie a basic bunko bow. As soon as you master the basics, however, the little creative adjustments you can make–a fold here, a stretch there, flipping inside-out around there–are only limited by your imagination and the length of fabric you have to work with. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of perfectly good, perfectly orthodox ways of arranging it already, though.

I just don’t have enough talent and practice yet to be very orthodox.

Today is officially Tanabata, the one night of the year when the seperated lovers, herdsman Hikoboshi and weaver Orihime, are allowed to meet! These two are otherwise known at the stars Altair and Vega, which are typically seperated by the Milky Way.

“But wait!” those of you familiar with this holiday might say. “That holiday is July 7th! The seventh day of the seventh month!”

Yes and no. It depends on which calendar you’re going by, and for that matter, which part of Japan you reside in.

Japan has a crazy number of calendars they function by. Anyone who has ever filled out any kind of official form in Japan may have run into confusion over whether to write their birthdate according to the Western calendar or according to the Japanese year-keeping system, which changes according to the reign of the emperor (we’re in Heisei Year 25 right now). What’s more, there is an even older year-keeping system which dates back to the founding of Japan and is only used to record dates in very limited circumstances.

When it comes to yearly calendars, there has long since been influence from China and the lunisolar calendar a good portion of the Asian continent was functioning according to (or calendars similar to it). Many traditional holidays were also imported, or at least held on certain days according to the former Japanese calendar. While we’re mentioning calendars and almanacs, there are even ones that cycle more frequently than the days of the week do, and are only used now for determining things like auspicious wedding dates.

When Japan westernized, they adopted the Gregorian calendar with much more vigor than many of their Asian neighbors did. While the lunar new year is still celebrated at the start of the lunar new year in other countries, in Japan, all New Years festivities are timed according to the Gregorian January 1st. That means that while China will still be in the Year of the Snake until January 31st, 2014, Japan will start the Year of the Horse a month ahead of time. I’m born in January, so this causes some confusion when I tell people what year of the zodiac I was born in.

This means that holidays celebrating seasonal changes have also been changed so that they are too early for the season they are celebrating. Hence, Japan instituted the optional tsuki-okure (“month delay”) system. This means that although a holiday may be nationally recognized according to its date on the Gregorian calendar, different regions of Japan may choose to celebrate it one month after that date.

I bring this up because the San’in region practices tsuki-okure. Like the Touhoku region the weather is a bit cooler, so holidays that commemorate warmer and warmer weather are celebrated in appropriately warmer weather. Hence, Doll Day (usually March 3) is April 3, and Children’s Day (usually May 5) is June 5. Instead of delaying the festivities until those dates, what typically happens is that they start celebrating on the dates according the Gregorian calender (since everyone else is already doing it) and just keep the decorations out a month longer. If you are on a trip to Japan and missed the doll displays or carp banners, now you know where to go.

Back to Tanabata, yes, that would technically put it at August 7th, which still doesn’t quite match up with the old lunisolar calendar. The one-month delay is just meant to get a little closer to the original date. That said, Tanabata festivals typically aren’t held on any preappointed day; instead, individual shrines (and companies or whatever other entity) will choose a date that is convenient. Theoretically, though the starry lovers only meet for one night, you could say the Tanabata season goes on for over a month.

The basic way to celebrate Tanabata in Japan is to write a wish on a tanzaku (strip of paper) and hang it on a decorated sprig of bamboo. You find this in shrines, in shopping malls, or any other public gathering space. Towards the end of the season, they look a little heavy with everyone’s wishes.

It just so happens that on July 7th, we held the closing ceremony for the 23rd Japan-America Grassroots Summit 2013 in Shimane. As far I saw, it seems the summit was a great success, with at least 80 Americans visiting places all over Shimane for homestay and cultural exchange experiences (just a side note, this is a great way for Americans of any age, occupation, or language ability to visit Japan (or host guests with they go to different parts of the states–you’re next, San Diego and Tijuana!)). As part of the ceremony, we had the Americans take part in this 1200-year-old tradition.

As for what the locals have been writing…

Speaking of summer holidays and tsuki-okure, this is right around when a lot of the country celebrates O-bon (think Day of the Dead, only its three days). The timing varies, but several areas choose to line up this holiday a little more closely with its lunisolar date, usually roughly August 15. (The area around Tokyo seems to have a distaste for tsuki-okure, though, so theirs is around July 15. However, the holiday atmosphere still lasts through August because everyone is gone visiting their hometown then!)

To mark the deceased spirits’ return to their world after a brief visit with their living relatives, it is common to float lanterns down a river or the like, toro-nagashi. In Matsue, this year’s toro-nagashi will be on August 16, at the Ohashi River which bisects the north and south sides of the city.

It’s both a little late to be posting these pictures from last year, and a little early to be posting them now–today marks the first day of O-bon here, so the spirits have only just arrived.