Beginning around mid-February, many shops, restaurants and even homes within the city limits will put up their hina displays. In Japan, March 3 is Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival or Girls’ Festival), when people pray for the happiness and healthy growth of girls. Families with young daughters mark this day by setting up a display of dolls inside the house. They offer rice crackers and other food to the dolls.
The dolls wear costumes of the imperial court during the Heian period (794-1192) and are placed on a tiered platform covered with red felt. The size of the dolls and number of steps vary, but usually the displays are of five or seven layers; single-tiered decorations with one male and one female doll are also common. The top tier is reserved for the emperor and the empress. A miniature gilded folding screen is placed behind them, just like the real Imperial throne of the ancient court. On the second tier are three ladies-in-waiting, and on the third are five male court musicians. Ministers sit on either side of trays of food on the fourth step, and the fifth row features guards flanked by an orange tree to the left and a cherry tree to the right.
The practice of displaying these dolls on the third day of the third month on the traditional Japanese calendar began during the Edo period (1603-1868). *Sidenote: Odd numbers are lucky in Japan because they are unbreakable. Even numbers can be broken. That’s why Girls’ Day is on March 3rd (03/03) and Boys’ Day is May 5th (05/05).* It started as a way of warding off evil spirits, with the dolls acting as a charm. Even today, people in some parts of the country release paper dolls into rivers after the festival, praying that the dolls take the people’s place in carrying away sickness and bad fortune.
Most families take their beautiful collection of dolls out around mid-February and put it away again as soon as Hina Matsuri is over. This is because of an old superstition that families who are slow in putting back the dolls have trouble marrying off their daughters! A traditional set of dolls can be very expensive. There are various grades for the sets, and some full sets cost more than one million yen (almost US$10,000)!! Unless there is a set handed down from generation to generation, grandparents or parents buy them for a girl by her first hina matsuri. However, since many Japanese live in small houses, the royal couple version (with only the emperor and empress dolls) is popular nowadays.
There are some common special dishes prepared for this festival. Hishimochi are diamond-shaped rice cakes, colored red (or pink), white, and green. The red is for chasing evil spirits away, the white is for purity and the green is for health. Chirashi-zushi, sakura-mochi (bean paste-filled rice cakes with cherry leaves), hina-arare (rice cake cubes) and shirozake (sweet white sake) are also often served.
Akari o tsukemashou bonbori ni
Ohana o agemashou momo no hana
Go-nin bayashi no fue taiko
Kyo wa tanoshii Hinamatsuri
Let’s light the lanterns
Let’s set peach flowers
Five court musicians are playing flutes and drums
Today is a joyful Dolls’ Festival
Yanagawa, whose characters mean “willow tree” and “river,” is a city towards the southern end of Fukuoka Prefecture in Kyushu. Known to tourists as the birthplace of one of Japan’s most popular modern poets and its delicious unagi (eel) dishes, I made a trip to Yanagawa for a different reason- to experience the Yanagawa Hina Festival (Sagemon Meguri).
Yanagawa sets itself apart from other towns, however, with the incorporation of two special crafts- the “sagemon” and the “Yanagawa mari.” Sagemon are mobiles hung with up to 51 hand-crafted trinkets. These can range from colorful balls to animals to small human-like figures. The figures are often sewn from cloth in a patchwork style. Each display of “sagemon” represents parents’ wishes for their girls to grow into beautiful, strong, and proud women. Yanagawa mari are a form of temari, traditional balls that originated in China and were once used in children’s games. They used to be made of leftover scraps of cloth from kimono but over the centuries, these balls became more and more decorative than functional and intricate designs were created and woven with string. Other regions lay claim to temari (like Matsumoto) but in Yanagawa, they can be added to the sagemon as well.
It is here in Yanagawa, you’ll often encounter a special event during this festival. Young girls dress up in kimono to look like the female hina dolls, and partake in a parade through town or ride in riverboats up the city canal. To get a first class seat of the girls in the boats, I took a 70 minute boat excursion around a historic canal surrounding Yanagawa Castle from the Edo period. The wide and narrow waterways network to form a unique landscape of the water district called, “Suigo,” that passes through the old castle’s water gate. Though Yanagawa was once a castle town, only ruins of its fortifications now remain. Instead, the feudal legacy lives on with its canal-like waterways that were in fact originally irrigation ditches and horiwari (moats) dug to protect the low-lying castle and its occupants.
About halfway through our peaceful ride down the canal, we passed the girls parade going upstream.
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!