In Japan, girls get their special holiday on the 3rd of March of every year.
The event, known as the Hina Matsuri, traces its origins back to an ancient Japanese event called the Hina-nagashi. It was believed at the time that dolls had the ability to capture and contain bad spirits. People would make straw dolls and then set them afloat on a river in a small boat thereby flushing away the “evil spirits” that could make their children sick.
In the Heian Period (794-1185) people began displaying dolls in their homes, and instead of the dolls being vessels to carry away evil spirits they became prayers for the health and prosperity of the families’ children, in particular their daughters. In order to invite the highest blessings possible the dolls are representative of the Emperor and Empress and the members and attendants of the Imperial Court. From the middle of February until the 3rd of March many families with daughters put out a tiered “hina-dan” platform, cover it with a red carpet, and display a set of hina dolls.
Traditional hina-dan have 5-7 levels, with the dolls representing the Emperor and Empress placed on the top level in front of a golden “byobu” folding screen. Three court ladies with sake and sake serving utensils are displayed on the second level, 5 male court musicians and their instruments occupy the third level, two court ministers and 4 tables on which diamond shaped hishimochi rice crackers are displayed on the 4th level, and three samurai helpers placed between an orange tree and a cherry tree are displayed on the 5th level. If present, the 6th level displays household goods that would be used within the Imperial residence and the 7th level displays goods that would be used by the Imperial family while traveling.
Displays of all sizes and extravagance exist, but a lot of modern Japanese households are not be able to accommodate or afford such displays. Many families and businesses opt to display a smaller hina-dan, often with just a single level displaying the most important Emperor and Empress dolls. Whatever the preference or ability of the display’s owners, people across Japan observe the strict tradition of putting their doll display away immediately after March 3rd. It is believed that leaving the display up past that date will lead to their daughters marrying late.
The city of Yamato Koriyama, one stop to the south of Nara on the JR Line, has a dedicated Hina Matsuri event put on by the city and the owners of the many historic merchant and samurai homes in the Joka-machi old castle district.
Machiya Monogatarikan (The Former Kawamoto Residence) a nearly century-old 3-story building in the middle of Joka-machi, hosts the largest and greatest number of Hina doll displays including several doll sets from the early 20th century, and a display so large that an entire staircase is needed to showcase the enormous number of dolls in its possession.
During the pandemic, exhibitions were largely canceled, but this year the events are back and as popular as ever. The Yamato Koriyama’s Hina Matsuri runs from the 25th of February through to the 5th of March. If you can't get down to Yamato Koriyama worry not, as the Yamato Koriyama City Tourism Association has kindly loaned us a huge Hina Doll display for our guests to enjoy instead.
The Top Tier
The top tier is for the Emperor and Empress. In the western Japan, especially in Kyoto, the Emperor is set on the right side. However, in the majority of other areas, he is placed on the left. The difference derives from a combination of old and new customs: Since the ancient time (around the 8th century) the concept of the Emperor being on the right side is as he appears with the Empress publicly. Kyoto, as the former capital, and its surrounding areas have kept this classic tradition; even after a new ideology from outside Japan had been introduced.
When the emperor Showa succeeded the throne (20th century) the non Japanese custom of the Empress being on the right hand side was adopted, and as successive emperors had never before had to be publicly seen in front of other nations, the custom stuck and is now what it is today.
The Second Tier
The second tier is for three imperial court ladies. They are a symbol of good education. To work in the palace they needed to behave elegantly and be knowledgeable on various subjects including Chinese poetry. It can be said they are Japanese governesses.
These dolls symbolize the wish of the girls in the family to grow up as smart ladies. The central lady has black teeth and no eyebrows. This curious appearance is expressed in the ancient tradition to distinguish married woman. She holds a cup or a nuptial ornament as a display of the arrival of a notable being. Seasonal sweets are set between each of the dolls.
The Third Tier
The third tier displays five musical accompaniment players. There are three drums, a flute, and chanting players. Because the boys have yet to become adults, their hair is not tied. This is a group seen at Noh theaters. The intention is to aid in a girls growth.
The Fourth Tier
The fourth tier is for the left and right guards. As the original custom of “left is better”, the right side displays an elderly man. They are commonly called “daijin” literally meaning minister, but they are actually warriors joining the imperial wedding ceremony as a security service in accordance with their outfits. On this tier, pairs of meal sets on legged trays and colorful rhombus rice cakes are set between them. The colors represent the sun, the moon (these two are sometimes omitted), peach blossoms, snow, sitting atop of a fresh green motif.
The Fifth Tier
The fifth tier is for the three servants. Their facial expressions are often created in three different ways; smiling, crying and anger. Compared to the nobles on the upper tiers, they are common people coming from far away regions to carry out chores instead of paying substantial taxes. They have a dustpan, a bamboo rake and a broom (shoes and parasols in the eastern style). They are not of respectable stature to hide their emotions, but are, at the same time, proof of having a good receptiveness. Citrus tachibana is set on their right and sakura (cherry blossoms) are on the left.
The remaining tiers are for the display of trousseaus. Clockwise from the top left, there are two chests of drawers, three large oblong chests, a dresser, a sewing box, two braziers, a tea ceremony set, an oxcart, a nest of boxes and a palanquin. The family of the bride prepares these items in order to support their daughter’s new life away from them.
The complete seven-story stand is gorgeous and was the most popular form of display. Since it is slightly bulky, the chance to view it in full has become rarer these days.
The dolls will be on display with us until March 7th, so if you're in town, drop by and take a look for yourself.
Author: NARA Visitor Center & Inn