By Avi Landau
It is March 3rd and across Japan families with daughters are celebrating the Hina Matsuri (雛祭り) Doll Festival with chirashizushi (vinegared sushi-rice topped with shrimp, salmon roe and colorful strips of egg, carrot and seaweed) clam soup (hamaguri no ushio, はまぐりの潮汁）, brightly dyed traditional rice-based sweets called hishimochi (ひし餅) and a milky colored sweet rice wine called shirozake ( 白酒). Though these 3 dishes and the sake have become the standardized Girls Day FARE throughout the country, there is surprising variation to be found among the Japanese in terms of how they display and subsequently put away the star attractions of the season — the Hina Dolls themselves.
Department stores and other shops start displaying and promoting the fantastically ornate and very expensive Hina Doll sets right after the New Year Holiday. This type of set became popular in the Edo Period (1600-1867) and has been customarily presented upon the birth of a first daughter by the maternal grandparents. A full set requires a seven-tiered staircase-like deck on which to display the prince and princess, ministers, attendants, musicians and the procession of dowry goods. Of course such a set can cost an arm and a leg and even more importantly takes up a lot of precious space. Thus it has been quite common for families to have and display just the prince and princess dolls.
The Hina Dolls are taken out and displayed in February, though there seems to be no consensus on exactly when it is best to do so. Some people do it right after Setsubun in the first week of the month, or on any other auspicious date after that. It depends on the family.
In this way, Japanese families can enjoy these sublimely beautiful seasonal decorations for a few weeks or days before March third, the day of the festival itself, on which it is commonly believed that the dolls must be put away. According to tradition, if the dolls are not packed in their boxes on the 3rd, the daughters of the house will have trouble getting married.
I have found, however, that many of the old Ibaraki families do not put their dolls away until May! They explain this by saying that they like to have the dolls out right up until it’s time for the Boys Day decorations. They usually claim that it is so troublesome to set up the Hina Dolls that they would like to display them for as long as possible.
It goes without saying that these families live in large homes in which the sets don’t get in the way of anybody. As so many Japanese now live in small apartments, I have found an endless variety of smaller rabbit-hutch friendly Hina Dolls or figures. These can be made of origami or be simple cut-outs. I have even seen families display postcards with pictures of dolls.
In fact, these smaller, paper dolls are more authentic than the ornate artworks created by the Edo Period craftsmen. This is because the Hina matsuri has its roots in Heian Period ( 794-1185) Japan when people would purify themselves by projecting all their sins into paper dolls which were then cast off into the sea or a river. In Wakayama Prefecture I have seen the dolls being set afloat on rivers as the tradition still lives on there.
I guess it can be said that the custom of packing away the dolls is what has replaced the act casting them off into a river or the sea. Naturally when the dolls evolved into elaborate and extremely EXPENSIVE sets it was not practicle anymore to discard them each year. Many families still believe that the bad energies absorbed by the dolls would bring bad luck if not PUT AWAY. ( and most Japanese would not buy used dolls- that is why foreign collecters can pick up fairly old dolls for extremely reasonable prices at so-called recycle shops).
I’ve just heard another interesting Hina Doll related story. My Friend Tokunaga-San has a daughter and displays a set of dolls throughout February. Since he and his wife both work and are still hectically busy when they get home with taking care of the kids and housework, they had no time to put away the dolls by the end of March 3rd (they are not native Ibarakians). In order to spare their daughter bad fortune and ruin her chances of a good marriage they simply turn the dolls the other way in lieu of boxing them up! They will have to wait until Sunday to do that.
A pair of Hina Dolls TURNED AROUND after March 3rd, by a family who had not yet had the time to put them away