Shinto: It’s Girls and Dolls for Hina Matsuri

Two little girls s how off their display of Hina Matsuri dolls. Photo released in public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.SUNDAY, MARCH 3: Girls take center stage in Japan today for the annual festival of Hina Matsuri. Also known as the Doll Festival, Hina Matsuri celebrates both girlhood and the ancient belief that dolls possess the power to contain evil spirits; both homes and public places abound with traditional seven-tiered doll displays. The girls in the photo, at right, only have a few dolls in their collection—but they are young. Long-time collectors have elaborate displays that can fill half a room.

The ritual of displaying dolls began during the Heian period in Japan, although the more specific rituals of Hina Matsuri began much earlier—with the ancient custom of hina-nagashi, or “doll floating.” Many people believed that dolls could draw away negative spirits, so Japanese families would set straw dolls on miniature boats, sending them—and the evil spirits they had removed—down rivers and out to sea. (Wikipedia has details.)

While that custom no longer exists, families continue to set up doll displays as early as February for Hina Matsuri. Girls and their families also partake in shirozake, a sake made with fermented rice, and hina-arare, small crackers flavored with sugar or soy sauce. Colored rice cakes, chirashizushi and clam soup are also popular dishes for Hina Matsuri.

Doll types range from homemade to collector quality (craft your own dolls with help from Crayola), but the way they are displayed for Hina Matsuri follows a specific pattern: Upon a red carpet, the top platform or tier holds two imperial dolls, an Emperor and an Empress; the second tier holds three court ladies, all holding sake equipment; the third tier displays five male musicians; the fourth tier holds two ministers, an orange tree and a cherry blossom tree; the fifth tier displays three helpers, or samurai, as protectors of the Emperor and Empress; the sixth and seventh tiers hold a myriad of miniature furniture, carriages and other tools and equipment.


Hina Matsuri extends far beyond Japan. Around the world, these traditional dolls draw hundreds of thousands of admirers, while keeping ancient traditions at the forefront. Oregon’s Portland Japanese Garden held its 50th anniversary this year. Learn more at its site. There is widespread interest in the UK, too. One festival—known as Japanese Matsuri for Glasgow—draws thousands of visitors every year.

Meanwhile, a doll display from the Mitsui family collection returns to Japan this year for the first time since the Great East Japan Earthquake two years ago. In Tokyo, plastic dinosaur models (dressed up as hina dolls) will make their second annual debut in 2013, and the historic Tokyo Hall will display approximately 600 ornate hina dolls that drew upward of 70,000 onlookers last year.

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