Hinamatsuri: Japanese culture celebrates girls during centuries-old doll festival

Young Japanese girl in pink kimono

On Hinamatsuri, Japan celebrates girls. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, MARCH 3: The first scents of cherry blossom are in the air as Japanese families gather to celebrate the centuries-old festival of Hinamatsuri, the Japanese Doll Festival (or Girls’ Day). Based loosely on the ancient Japanese custom of floating dolls down a river in a tiny boat, in hopes that the dolls will take bad spirits away with them, Hinamatsuri is now an opportunity to display prized dolls. A set of seven platforms, set up days and weeks before Hinamatsuri, display dolls in a very specific manner. Dolls represent the Emperor, Empress, attendants and musicians of the Heian period, and are equipped with tools, golden screens, mandarin orange and cherry blossom trees, furniture and sake equipment. There is still some lore involved with the dolls, though: it’s said that leaving out the platforms after Hinamatsuri is over will bring bad luck.


In Japan today, community members pray for the health and well being of young girls. Sugar- or soy-flavored crackers and sake are common fare, as is chirashizushi (rice topped with raw fish). This year, limited-edition Hello Kitty sweets—in flavors peach and matcha—will be available across Japan. Outside of Japan, Hinamatsuri is widely celebrated in Hawai’i, in Florence, Italy and in Japanese communities worldwide. In Hawai’i this year, the Kona Coffee Living History Farm celebrates Girls’ Day with special events.

Hinamatsuri: Japanese families bring out the dolls in elaborate displays

Hina Matsuri display in Japan

Many Japanese homes display dolls for this special holiday. Some are able to set up a full seven-layer display like this one, photographed by Chris73 and provided for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

TUESDAY, MARCH 3: Intricately detailed dolls are displayed en masse across Japan and in Japanese communities worldwide, as Hinamatsuri commences.

Known alternatively as “Doll’s Day,” or “Girls’ Day,” Hinamatsuri draws from the custom of doll display that began during the Heian period. When people believed that dolls could contain bad spirits, it was also believed that by floating a doll down a river aboard a simple boat, bad spirits would be carried away, too. Today, few Japanese float dolls out to sea—due to environmental concerns and complaints from fishermen who find dolls tangled in their nets.  Alternatively, the dolls are placed onto boats until after ceremonies are complete, at which time the dolls are recollected and burned in a temple.


Elaborate hina dan, or platforms, used to display Hinamatsuri dolls have seven levels. The top tier holds two imperial dolls—the Emperor and Empress—placed in front of a gold folding screen; the second tier holds three court ladies; the third holds five male musicians. On the fourth platform, two ministers stand on either side of bowl tables; on the fifth tier, samurai are displayed, and on the final two platforms, various furniture pieces, tools and more are placed. When Hinamatsuri is over, dolls are taken down almost immediately, for fears of superstition.

Care to read more? Wikipedia has a detailed overview of the traditions behind these platforms.

While praying for the happiness and health of young girls, families often consume hina-arare, bite-sized crackers, and hishimochi, a diamond-shaped colored rice cake. Sushi rice topped with raw fish and a salt-based soup, ushiojiru, are also commonly eaten on Hinamatsuri. The customary drink is shirozake, a sake made from fermented rice. Though Hinamatsuri is primarily celebrated in Japan, festivities are also held in Hawaii and in select other regions of the world.


This year, a Japanese pastry and confectionery company, Mon Cher, is offering a line of Sanrio-inspired cakes for Hinamatsuri, featuring Hello Kitty and My Melody. (Read more here.) Similarly, many bakeries and food services offer specialty items for Doll’s Day.

At the Kyoto National Museum, an exhibition of historical Hinamatsuri dolls will be back for the first time in six years, as the museum’s new wing has reopened to the public after construction. (The Japan Times reported.) This year, the exhibition will feature dolls from different eras, including a new donation of dolls once commissioned for a baby girl in 1844.

Hinamatsuri: Japan marks Girls’ Day, doll displays and Baskin Robbins treats

Young girl standing over table of elaborate Japanese dolls and accessories

A girl examines a doll display for Hinamatsuri. Photo by Timothy Takemoto, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MARCH 3: Anticipate the aroma of cherry blossoms and indulge in the elaborate beauty of dolls as Japanese communities across the globe celebrate Hinamatsuri. Alternatively called the Japanese Doll Festival, or Girls’ Day, Hinamatsuri sprung up from the ancient Japanese custom of floating dolls down a river in a tiny boat, in belief that the dolls would take any bad spirits with them. During the Heian period (Heian meaning “peace,” or “tranquility,” in Japanese, and representing the last division of classical Japanese history) it became customary to display dolls, too.

Today, Hinamatsuri serves as an opportunity for young girls, families, shops and museums alike to set out their best display of Hina dolls. The dolls are traditionally arranged on seven platforms, and community members pray for the health and well being of young girls.

The dolls on a Hinamatsuri set of platforms may be simple or elaborate, but placing instructions are, customarily, very specific. The entire stand of dolls must represent the Emperor, Empress, attendants and musicians of the Heian period—all in traditional attire. (Wikipedia has details.) The first platform displays the Emperor and Empress, in front of a golden screen; the second platform holds three court ladies, each of which hold sake equipment. The third platform presents five male musicians; the fourth platform demonstrates two ministers, a mandarin orange tree and a cherry blossom tree. On the fifth platform, three helpers protect the Emperor and Empress; on the sixth and seventh platforms, a variety of doll furniture and tools is displayed.

Most doll displays are constructed in February, although superstition prevents them from being left up after March 3. Outside of Japan, Hinamatsuri is met with revel in Florence, Italy, in Hawai’i and in Japanese communities worldwide.

Chirashizushi (rice topped with raw fish), sugar- or soy-flavored crackers and sake made from fermented rice are all popular fare for the day.


Pink gelatinous balls covered with a cherry blossom leaf, edible

Sakuramochi treats for Hina Matsuri, traditionally made with cherry blossom leaves and pink rice cake. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

These days, Hina doll displays are so popular that they are making headlines far and wide: The Portland Japanese Garden, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo, Mitsui Memorial Museum and Meguro Gajoen in Tokyo are just a few of the places advertising their doll platforms and goings-on for Hinamatsuri.

Baskin Robbins is taking a cue from the holiday and has released five new ice cream dolls in a tiered box, each in a different flavor—representing, of course, the Emperor and Empress and their attendants. (Fox News reported.)

Starbucks has also taken a cultural prompt with this season’s springtime sakura beverage lineup, which reflects Hinamatsuri’s sakuramochi (a Japanese confectionery of pink rice cake, red bean paste and a cherry blossom leaf). Drinks boasts white chocolate, sakura flowers and leaves and strawberry infused whipped cream—but, unfortunately for international clients, this lineup is only offered in Japan.