Saturday, August 6, 2011

Japanese Holidays: ひな祭り Hinamatsuri, Girls' Day Dolls

A Festival for Girls

In Japan, March 3rd marks Hina Matsuri or Girls’ Day. It’s the third day of the third month and one of the five gosekku festival days including Nanakusa no sekku(Seven Grasses Day), Kodomo no hi(Boys’ Day), and Tanabata(the Star Festival). This festival is solely for girls and is the companion to Boys’ Day on May 5th. It’s a time to celebrate and pray for the girls’ health and prosperity and dates back to the Heian period. The main activity of this day is the displaying of the hina-ningyo or hina dolls, refered to as Ohina-sama. This is a set of dolls and is supposed to be a representation of the emperor and empress complete with their entourage in Heian period dress.. The set may include dozens of dolls and many more miniatures and may have up to seven steps or tiers. At the top is the emperor and empress seated in front of a beautiful screen. They are the ideal of a loving and happy marriage. Lower tiers show handmaidens, servants and all sorts of furniture, tables with food, lanterns, traditional festive cherry blossoms(pink) and plum blossoms(white), and a kago, or traditional screened chair to be carried by two men, a kind of Heian period taxi. These dolls are not mere decoration, but are believed to protect the girls of the household. This dates back to ancient times when it was believed that these dolls could contain bad spirits and other tragedies. If a bad spirit or illness came, the dolls would take it into themselves, thereby protecting the girls they belong to.

These dolls are often displayed for about a month or so, prior to the festival itself. There is a belief that the dolls must be put away quickly immediately following the festival or else the girls will not marry. This can be quite an ordeal, as usually each piece is hand-wrapped in tissue paper. As with the kabuto miniature helmets for Boys’ Day, these dolls are sold at specialty shops and can be very expensive and are often a gift from grandparents. Modern sets can be smaller and enclosed in a glass case, thereby making cleanup easier. My daughters have such a set. There is no wrapping of dolls, just simply put away the whole glass case in the box and you’re done!

In the small town of Hirose, near were my wife grew up, they have special Hina festival. Many of the residents in Hirose have antique dolls, some well over a hundred years old. There are many old houses lined up close together and the people display there hina-ningyo outside for everyone to see. Visitors are encouraged to come and walk along the streets and view these special dolls.

It’s important to note that in some parts of Japan like eastern Shimane prefecture where my wife is from, Hina Matsuri is celebrated one month later in April. This is because the festival was originally observed according to the lunar calendar. The lunar and Gregorian calendars don’t match up and the lunar calendar date is often closer to the Gregorian date of the next month.

Traditional Foods

There are many traditional foods for Hina Matsuri. These include:

Chirashizushi- a very colorful sushi rice dish served in a large bowl. It includes vinegar rice, several kinds of raw fish, egg, and the sweet, bright pink, sakura-denbu.
Arare- This is a bite-sized rice cracker mix. They are usually round balls and come in an assortment of shapes and colors. They are salty and sometimes sweet.

Kompeito- These are round, star like sugar candies. They come in a variety of colors and are originally a confection from Portugal and my personal favorite.

Amazake- This is a sweet, non-alcoholic version of sake.

Sacred Dolls

So what happens if the dolls become worn out or obsolete? They shouldn’t simply be thrown away with the garbage. These are sacred objects. They must be taken to a shrine or temple where they are ceremonially burned. However, one can’t take them to just any temple. Only certain ones accept dolls and only at certain times of year. They also accept dolls through the mail. One of the most famous is Awashima Shrine in Kada, in Wakayama prefecture. There are literally thousands of dolls, both inside and outside the shrine. The nicer ones are kept for display, but thousands more are placed on the ceremonial funeral pyre. In ancient times, dolls were often let float out to sea or in the river. At Awashima, priests still ceremonially cleanse the dolls in order to wash away their sins, or rather the sins of those they belonged too.

It’s also believed that many are haunted and dolls have often been the inspiration for horror stories. There are many dolls whose hair has grown longer over the years. Scientists say this is a trick of humidity, but people believe the dolls are alive. Other dolls are associated with paranormal activity, strange sounds, feelings, or the dolls seem to move about by themselves. Such special dolls are safely kept under lock and key at the shrine as not to cause any mischief. Once or twice a year, they have T.V. specials where celebrity guests are invited to spend the night or a few hours with these dolls. They have several cameras on at once to record any strange happenings.

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