A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Celebrating HINA MATSURI ( The Doll Festival) – some Tsukubans will be taking their time in putting away their HINA DOLLS!

Chirashi-zushi for March 3rd’s Hina Matsuri – The Doll Festival (or Girls’ Day)

Chirashi Zushi, vinegared-rice covered decoratively with a variety of festively-colorful toppings

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.

Hishi Mochi – symbolizing health and fertility. These traditional Hina Matsuri Desserts are also offered to the Hina Dolls before March 3rd.

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.
(I have written a more detailed history of Hina Matsuri and Hina Dolls in a previous post)
Festive sweets being promoted at a supermarket in Tsukuba (March 2, 2016)

Festive sweets being promoted at a supermarket in Tsukuba

Hina Doll motifed cakes for the occasion!

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.

Clams for making HAMAGURI NO USHIO (clam soup)- staple of the Hina Doll Festival. The way the clam shells fit together symbolizes a perfect match for ones daughters


Origami Hina Dolls

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.

Non-alcoholic SHIROZAKE, in a KITTY-CHAN bottle and tiny hina dolls made of silkworm cocoons (at a community center in Hojo, Tsukuba )

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.
HinamatsuriIn 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).

A Doll Festival snack- HINA ARARE. Roasted puffs of rice, glutinous rice, or soy, dyed a light pink, yellow and white. Here is a haiku poem expressing the delight little girls felt when holding them in their hand 手のひらに色を遊ばせ雛あられ (TE NO HIRA NI IRO WO ASOBASE HINA ARARE) : Cradled in my hand, I take in their soft colors, Hina Arare

A closer look at some HINA ARARE. Some older women remember the days when it was only on Hina Matsuri that they got served their food and their snacks BEFORE THEIR BROTHERS! (though it might still be the same in many families today!)

One of the many new modern ideas for Hina Matsuri products- HINA STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE

Kamaboko fish cakes with a doll motif. There are sliced and then placed in BENTO lunch-boxes or on top of some home-made chirashi-zushi

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.
Hina Dolls Turned Around
A pair of Hina Dolls TURNED AROUND after March 3rd, by a family who had not yet had the time to put them away

When people are too busy to put away their dolls immediately after the festival- they sometimes turn them around instead

Dolls TURNED AROUND because there was no time to put them away just after March 3rd

A supermarket in Tsukuba lined the windows with pictures of Hina Dolls drawn by local children

A closer look


  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    First of all let’s toast for Avi-san’s quick recovery!!
    Alice-san’s previous question about Hina-dolls that there are some confusions in sites. “Whether they are emperor and empress or prince and princess”
    At the beginning during Heian-era 10century Hina-dolls were to be thought dolls of pair in court parson’s fashion. And just thought dolls for play and pray for girls.
    In middle of Edo period, (around middle of 18 century), those decoration began to become gorgeous not only using top pair dolls but added 3 court ladies dolls,5 musicians dolls 2 ministers dolls, 3 servants dolls like that, they were thought to be Dairi-sama(内裏様:inside the palace pair). This meant emperor and empress, equal meaning Tenno and Kougo.
    There are 2 ministers Sadaijin(左大臣: left minister) and Udaijin(右大臣:right minister), and other followers attending, that also means they are representing Tenno and Kougo.
    Japanese people just have been calling Dairi-sama, not necessarily have been recognized as emperor or Tenno.
    But recently for convenience and to save cost there are Hina-dolls of one pair only, they have been sold as Shinno-hina(親王雛). Shinno means prince, so in this case prince and princes. I think because of simplicity of decoration they use Shinno-hina (prince) instead of Dairi-hina(emperor).
    We presented Shino-hina set to my second-daughter as a bithday present who already has a boy 6 years old. We think tradition is important but we can have our own choice like our cooking style.

  • Alice says:

    Thanks Shimizu-san for enlightening me. Yes, I notice the features and hairstyles of the emperor and empress compared to the prince and princess.

  • Alice says:

    Oh, one more thing: that is the first time I’ve heard of the name shinp-hina. Someone told me that the dolls are called obina and mebina and I got more confused. I forgot to ask her if she was referring to the two main dolls at the top tier or the rest of the dolls.
    Are the five musicians male or female? In some pictures, they looked like female musicians to me while wikipedia says they are male musicians. Any idea? They look like females to me with their hairstyle, but then again there are displays of the musicians with different hairstyle like young males.

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Hi Alice-san
    First, I am not a specialist in Hina-dolls. I just did some research. I very much enjoyed the procedure!
    ① I have never heard of shinpu-hina, but at some Google site someone recently made a comment about the wedding ceremony of a model named Hina, and used the word Shinpu-hina. Shinpu means bride in Japanese, so shinpu-hina means bride-Hina. Thus I think there is no connection to Hinamaturi. In my previous sentence I wrote shino-hina, and that should be shinno-hina.
    ② Dairi-sama or Shinno-hina are pairs of male and female dolls,the O in obina means male, ME in mebina means female. In Japanese males are otoko, or dansei, and O& osu can be used for humans, animals, insects, fish, plants), females are onna or josei, while me &u; mesu can be used for humans, animals, etc.). So I sometime use ♂,♀ for memorandum. (like ♂18,♀4) easy for check. Originally Dairi-sama meant pair-dolls. Some time ago there was a famous children song which led to the misunderstanding that Dairi-sama was male and me(onna)-bina(hina)-sama his wife. Then some people used obina(ohina)-sama. O could also be a polite way of referring to anything, which amkes things even more confusing! (Written in Japanese characters however,, お雛様、男雛 you can easilly tell the difference though). 
    ③ Five musicians! I never have had doubts about their sex. I have always thought they were male.
    But I am not so sure, my research didn’t tell me exactly. But I think they are male, In the court of the emperor they were surely male, who could play music. Some time ladies played dance or the Japanese flute. Music played by 5 members was like a small orchestra, they should be professionals like Gagaku (Japanese Old Court music) or music-players in No(能) now.
     And those five musicians-dolls have short swords on their left-side waist; this also means they are males. And they are boys so their hair in front was not shaved like adult males as ministers, nor was it wound up backward like the emperor.
    So, looking at their hair-style and red mouths they look like females, but they are males. Their hair style is called KABURU.

  • alice says:

    Thanks Mamoru-san,
    Oops, it was a typo. I meant shinno-hina. Ah, now I understood. I once saw a pair of shinno-hino decorated in a hotel or hospital. I understand about the gender “O” (obina) and “Me mebinga). So obina and mebina also refers to the pair of dolls and not the rest of the dolls who are males (ministers and servants) and females (ladies-in-waiting), right?

    I like Avi’s blog. It’s like a discussion group for me.:)

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    That right about sex adjectives.
    Position:whether right or left is important, left side is usually more important to compare right side. Before Meiji-era the male-hina was put on left, and female-hina right. Meiji emperor introduced western culture for his court, standing position in court too, Emperor right and Emperess left, then in Hina position followed this in Many part of Japan, still in some area they are keeping traditional position male-hina left. Some article said in Chinese tradition left is more important, so left side minister is senior to right.
    In Some article they say if male stands left he can easily take sward from left side waist or from sward-stand(left) to protect right standing female easily(right side arm are usually majolity).

  • alice says:

    Oh, I didn’t know that the ministers were also arranged in different position. Thank you for the explanation

    About the obina and mebina, do the terms only refer to the emperor/prince and empress/princess OR all the female and male dolls on the tiered stand?

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    About obina and mebina
    Obina means literally male-doll(s).     男雛
    Mebina means literally female-doll(s)   女雛
    Still in Hinamatsuri-ninngyo (festival-doll set)
    Obina means emperor (on the tier) or prince (just pair)
    Mebina means empress (on the tier) or princess(just pair)

    So those 3 court-ladies, 5 musicians (male),2 ministers(male), 2 valets (male) are not called obina nor mabina

    There are Japanese way of calling to put on O on the front.
    oto-sama:father, okah-sama:mother, o-kome:rice, o-kashi:sweet
    By this way it is meaning somehow important,valuable, respectaful

    So we don’t call them just hina but o-hina-sama: sama:also respectaful way put on the last of word. So in this sense we call all dolls like court ladies, o-hina-sama.
    (for example:There is ohinasama,one curt-lady in that box, if you open we can find whole ohinasam-set!) in the conversation.

    O:男:雄 mail
    O:お(御)put on the top
    Same pronunciation
    Hina became bina when in reading to make it easy to pronounce

    I hope you would get meaning.

    I sincerely hope there will be no big after-earthquakes, and recovery of control of the atomic plant. Wish ohinasamas all over Japan to pray too.

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