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Nothing Spared for Welcoming the New Season – Hina Matsuri

2018.03.09

The 3rd March is Hina Matsuri, the Dolls Festival, in Japan.  Families with girls decorate their houses with Hina Ningyo (Little Dolls) set and celebrate their health.

This is one of five “Sekku”, a break from agricultural work routines to mark the change in the seasons.  (21st Oct 2017 Chouyo no Sekku article.)   As it coincides with the start of Spring, with green shoots and beautiful blossoms coming through, it has become something more uplifting to look forward to for everyone.

Rites of Spring in Ancient Japan

This colourful and joyful springtime festival developed into its current form throughout Japanese history, but distant from its origin.  In China, where this originates, it is a day to make a small ragdoll with straw to transfer curses accumulated in your own body and release them down a river, to be ready for the new season.

In Japan, this ritual was combined in the 9th centuries with the dolly play which was popular in the royal court.  Dolls made of decorative paper replaced the ragdolls, and were carefully put on a small tray made of straw or bamboo, and floated on their garden stream.  The occasion became more of an elegant thing to do for ladies in the court, when peach, plum and cherry blossoms start to add colours to their gardens.

From the Court Garden to Towns and Villages

The celebration which is currently followed was formed in the 17th and 18th century.  During this peaceful period in Japan’s history, the craft of doll-making significantly advanced.  People did not dare to float the dainty porcelain dolls dressed in elaborate silk kimonos down the river.  (The government banned people from littering the rivers with paper dolls, for environmental reasons.)  Instead, they were proudly displayed in houses for about 3 to 4 weeks, taking away the curse from the girls in the house, and wishing them healthy, long lives.

As this custom spread, households became competitive in showing off the dolls.  Initially, the dolls were a set of a man and a woman, often depicted as a noble couple.  But in the mid-18th Century, magnificent sets of dolls were arranged into 7 stepped platforms:  the couple at the top platform, and then maids, guards, and musicians with seasonal flower and produce, as well as a set of miniature furniture made of lacquerware.

It kept on getting bigger and more expensive until it saw a life-size doll gaining popularity – it was no longer Hina Ningyo – small dollies.  The government had to step in and restrict over-spending by citizens.  Still, after the period of folly, it remained as a joyful day of family celebration centred around their girls.

Decorate with Seasonal Flowers, Celebrate with Seasonal Produce

Hina Matsuri is also known as the Peach Festival.  Flowers were used in China for rituals, as it is believed to have the power to secure a trouble-free long life.  This tradition survived, despite the independent development of the festival in Japan.  To accompany the beautiful dolls, peach blossoms are used for decorating houses and party tables. A miniature peach tree is a must-have item in the dolls set, bringing the presence of Springtime to the house.

All these beautiful details are in the modern day’s celebration of the occasion.  It is not a public holiday in Japan, but people, mainly mothers, go a long way to make this day very special for their daughters (and for themselves).

Dolls and the decorations are taken from their boxes and flowers are arranged, usually after the first day of Spring, 4th February.  On the 3rd March, families gather to celebrate the day by serving special dishes.  These comprise mixed sushi rice (Chirashi Sushi), colourfully decorated with lotus flowers for good luck, prawns for long life, thinly fried and shredded eggs for wealth, fish flakes coloured in the seasonal colour of pink sprinkles.  Clam is also believed to signify the modesty of women, and a happy married life, for both shells have to perfectly match to form the pair, so they are served for their good future.  Diamond shaped three-colour layered rice cake is served to welcome Spring.

It is a happy day for the family to gather around the table, to expect bright things to come, be it blossoms of Spring or the greenery of newly planted rice pads.  But the main stars always remained young girls dressed up in a slightly oversized, brightly coloured Kimono to grow into.

Nothing is spared for this uplifting occasion, welcoming the new season of brightness, warmth, colours and life, surrounded by very Japanese natural beauty.

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