Most of the year, if you pass through the center of the quaint, though rusting and run-down old town of Makabe, you are unlikely to see a single soul walking about. That is why it is surprising to go there in February, the coldest month of the year, and find the streets filled with throngs of excited visitors wandering from old shop to old shop and old house to old house. What are all these people doing, sometimes even in the rain ad sleet ? Well, eating, drinking (the local sake!), shopping, taking in the dozens of historical buildings, and most prominently, OOHING and AAHING at the dazzling variety of antique Hina Doll sets which are proudly displayed by local residents from February 4 to March 4th. There are about 200 of these family heirlooms, set up for your viewing pleasure, at shops and homes around the city center, and they have proven very successful, as part of the city-promoted Hina Matsuri Doll Festival, in bringing Makabe BACK TO LIFE, even if just for four winter weeks each year, for the past seven years.
Though the town can be a bit depressing in the way that TIME SEEMS TO HAVE PASSED IT BY (a by-pass road has diverted traffic from the city center, the old Tsukuba Railroad, which ran from Tsuchiura to Iwase with a station in Makabe has gone out of service, and the stone workers who have made Makabe Stone-Ware famous throughout Japan now have to compete with much cheaper imports from Korea and China), Makabe is ALWAYS a fascinating place to visit, with an old castle ruin, several noteworthy shrines and temples, an almost unchanged early-20th century townscape, dozens of stone works shops displaying their sometimes bizarre wares, an 800 year old bell foundry (!), and its completely different view (as compared with Tsukuba) of Mt Tsukuba and the mountains behind it, Mt Ashio and Mt Kaba. Despite these formidable attractions, in Japan of the Heisei Era, Makabe is far off the beaten tourist path — except, of course, when the calendar comes round to February (and the first 3 days of March), and the local residents bring out their old dolls — a testament to Makabes’s GOLDEN YEARS from the late Edo Period to mid-Showa, when its merchants could afford to splurge on extravagant Hina Doll sets to celebrate their female offspring and pray for their growth, good health and happy marriage.
Makabe in fact thrived for centuries, first as a castle town established in the late Heian Period under the Makabe-Lords which ruled until just after the battle of Sekigahara (1600) and the assertion of Tokugawa Family hegemony over Japan. The town was then ruled by the Asano Family (mostly doing the ruling from Kasama, however), whose most famous member was Asano Takuminokami (of the 47 Ronin story fame). Hence, the fine temples and shrines in the town and surrounding area.
During the Edo Period (1600-1868), as the merchants prospered, so did the situation of Hina Doll makers and the dolls themselves. Originally, having been tiny paper or straw figurines which were wiped against a girl’s body to remove impurities, and then cast off, like scape-goats into a river or the sea, the dolls used on the Girls’ Day Festival (Momo no Sekku ) evolved over time into sublime works of art, at first affordable only for the nobility and upper-rung samurai. As the merchant class grew richer, they too were able to buy the dolls, which in their fullest sets portray a prince and princess with their retinue and all the wedding trappings. The custom of putting out Hina dolls for the few weeks before the 3rd day of the 3rd month (now March 3rd), ended up becoming nearly universal. Instead of having these dolls cast-off into water, as the more primitive prototypes were in the old days, they were cast (gently of course) back into their boxes on the day after the festival. Families who did not do this were considered to be endangering their daughters’ chances of a happy marriage.
In Makabe today, you will be able to see several doll sets from the Edo Period.
Visiting during the Hina Matsuri will also give you an opportunity to enter and photograph some VERY OLD shops and homes. At some residences, visitors are invited into the family compounds of larger homes and even into the old KURA (storehouses). The presence of two sake breweries which provide free tasting samples might even add a little extra ZIP to your doll viewing experience.
You can get to Makabe by car in about 40 minutes from central Tsukuba. Head north to Route 41. As you leave the Tsukuba City limits you will start to see the stone works on both sides of the road (and one curious HANIWA shop, selling large recreations of ancient earthen-ware figurines). You can park at the Sakuragawa City Office (now Makabe is part of Sakuragawa City).
Another option is to take the special buses operating for the festival (recommended for those who plan on tasting sake) which leave from the Tsukuba Center bus terminal. The earliest buses leave at 9:10 and 9:35. Roundtrip fare is 1500 yen.
This year some other cities in Ibaraki have been trying to copy Makabe’s idea by holding similar month-long events. In the future, it seems that most of the old towns of Ibaraki will be getting DOLLED-UP for February.
I hope, however, that a visit to Makabe during the Hina Matsuri might lead to further appreciation of this all too overlooked neighbor of ours. Have a look at some of Makabe’s places of interest: