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.

Shinto: It’s a day for dolls and daughters on Hina-matsuri

A Hina-matsuri doll display. Photo in public domain courtesy of flickrSATURDAY, MARCH 3: It’s a day for the dolls in Japan today, as families who observe Shinto traditions mark Girls’ Day. In ancient custom, devotees display an elaborate setup of dolls on seven platforms, representing the Emperor, Empress, attendants and musicians of the Heian period (794-1185 CE); in years past, people believed the dolls could contain bad spirits and would send dolls down a river to the sea. (Hey, kids! Make your own paper dolls for Hina-matsuri, courtesy of Crayola.)

Although few today believe that dolls have any power over evil spirits, many still seize the day to pray for a daughter’s well being and to partake in the customary drinks, shirozake and amazake. Dolls are commonly displayed through today, although legend has it that dolls still up tomorrow could damage a daughter’s future ability to marry.

Alternately termed the Japanese Doll Festival, Hina-matsuri is one reason that collecting dolls is very popular across the country. Some of the displays contain expensive red carpets, authentic doll accessories, ornamental trees and furniture. (Wikipedia has details.) Elaborate doll collections are common—for adults, too—and some collections hold esteemed positions at museums such as the Kyoto National Museum and Peabody Essex Museum.

Looking for a taste of Japan? Many Japanese families will eat chirashi today—a sushi rice sprinkled with sugar and vinegar, with raw fish on top—and several Japanese restaurants, such as the eatery at the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo, will feature special Hina-matsuri menus. Americans typically consume the bacteria used to make cheese and yogurt and similarly Japanese enjoy a type of fungus known as koji that lends to one of today’s most popular traditional drinks: amazake. (Learn more from the Japan Times.) Amazake is sweet (made of fermented rice), and often served hot.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Shinto: Go beans for Setsubun and eat up for good luck

It’s customary on Setsubun to eat as many soybeans as years you are old. Photo in public domainFRIDAY, FEBRUARY 3: Dig those dried beans out of the pantry today—and if you’re in the mood for good luck, keep reading to learn more about the Shinto Japanese holiday of Setsubun!

Today’s ancient festival involves the throwing of beans, the casting off of evil spirits and some tasty recipes to finish the day. Setsubun also marks the last day of winter in the Japanese lunar calendar, and devotees view today as a time for cleansing for the coming “New Year.” (Wikipedia has details.) By cooking previously hard beans into something digestible and delicious, participants believe they have the power to conquer evil spirits in the same way; by also decorating their homes with symbolic foods and (occasionally) throwing hard beans out the door, they drive away evil spirits before the first day of spring.

At Buddhist and Shinto shrines today, priests often throw soybeans into a crowd, along with envelopes of money and candy; in some places, celebrities join the festivities and attendees scramble to pick up the prizes like children rushing to a broken piñata. Today, the dense population of some urban areas requires people to take this activity to a shrine, since having thousands of people throwing beans out their windows on a city street would be messy and potentially dangerous. (Get the current scoop from the Japan Times.)

Over a customary drink of ginger sake, some Setsubun participants will be enjoying the sights of disguised or cross-dressing geisha, as Setsubun has long been considered an “in between time” that lingers between the old year and the coming year (role reversal was more widely practiced among previous generations). Still, everyone can get in on the fun at the Kaiyukan Aquarium in Osaka, where divers dressed up like “oni,” or ogres from Japanese folklore, will be posing for photographs.

Shinto: Welcome adulthood on Seijin no Hi

Photo in public domainMONDAY, JANUARY 9: In a centuries-old tradition, 19- and 20-year-olds in Japan today dress in formal clothing, visit government offices and attend parties: it’s Seijin no Hi, a Shinto tradition that signals coming of age. In most of Japan, turning 20 means more privileges and responsibilities, ranging from the right to vote and drink alcohol to observance of adult laws. What was once an annual Jan. 15 ceremony now falls on the second Monday of January, since Japan introduced the Happy Monday System slightly more than one decade ago. (Wikipedia has details.)

It’s difficult to determine how Seijin no Hi began—some claim a young prince wore new robes to mark his passage into adulthood, while others insist that the coming of age ceremonies common among nobility morphed into a country-wide festival. Either way, today’s Seijin no Hi calls young adults to attend speeches at local city offices, receive small gifts from government officials and to accept their new place in society.

Since most females don a traditional furisode, or kimono with draping sleeves, to ceremonies, it’s common for young women to rent or borrow this expensive piece of clothing and then have it put on at a salon. Young men wear either a dark kimono or formal Western clothing.

Japanese newspapers have reported record lows for this year’s Seijin no Hi, as only 1.22 million—or .96 percent of Japan’s population—are taking part. (Check out an article from the Mainichi Daily News.) Even with a lively annual ceremony at Tokyo Disneyland, the festival’s popularity is in its fifth year of decline. For those who attended, officials encouraged the support of Japan’s future and urged the young adults to become involved in their country’s affairs. (Get a visual with photos from this year’s ceremonies.)

Shinto, Buddhist: Ring in with Japanese Oshogatsu

Photo in public domainSUNDAY, JANUARY 1: At midnight on December 31, bells ring out across Japan for the 108 sins of Buddhist belief—and with that, Japan begins its extensive Oshogatsu (New Year) celebrations. Following an early-morning meal of soba noodles, Japanese typically receive piles of postcards from family and friends, wishing one another luck in the New Year. (Get a visual of traditional foods and decorations from a PBS blogger.) Customarily, Shinto devotees visit a shrine on Jan. 1, often clad in a kimono or other formal clothing. This centuries-old ritual still is popular in Japan, along with many other New Year traditions—even though Japanese went through a major cultural shift when the New Year date changed a century ago. Japan accepted the Gregorian calendar five years after the Meiji Restoration around the era of our Civil War.

Japanese New Year events continue for several days past January 1. Since customs began before the invention of the refrigerator, most New Year foods are dried or preserve easily: boiled seaweed, sweetened black soybeans and sticky rice cakes are commonly served. (Wikipedia has details.) New Year’s games mimicking “pin the tail on the donkey” and kite flying delight adults and children alike. Children usually receive money in elaborate envelopes on Jan. 1. In an East-West convergence of cultures, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has become associated with the Japanese New Year. On the seventh day of the New Year season—January 7—Japanese eat a seven-herb rice soup, to ease their stomachs from the multitude of feast foods ingested during the week’s celebrations.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Shinto: Celebrate children on Shichi-Go-San

A YOUNG CHILD in a kimono. Photo in public domain.TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 15: Get that camera ready—children are the center of attention today in Shintoism, and for many 3-year-olds, 5-year-olds and 7-year-olds, today is their first time donning a kimono and visiting a shrine in traditional attire. For more than 1,000 years, Shinto followers in Japan have marked Shichi-Go-San as an auspicious day, used to celebrate the passage of young children into middle childhood. Through the years, commoners began to mark this passage as much as those in the imperial class, and today, many parents take their children to shrines in hopes of driving out evil spirits and wishing them a long, prosperous life. Of course, dressing children in a kimono for the first time is also a photo opportunity in this era! Since this is not an official national holiday, families can recognize Shichi-Go-San today—or the weekend before or after the actual date. (Not familiar with Shintoism? You might be surprised to learn more, including the Shinto emphasis on green” ways of living! Learn more from a Loyola University student.)

The imperial family of Japan recently celebrated its own version of Shichi-Go-San, as Prince Hisahito marked his fifth birthday in September. Two ceremonies, both imperial versions of Shichi-Go-San, were held for the first time since 1970—when Hisahito’s father, Prince Akishino, was honored. (Read the article in The Mainichi Daily News.)

Imperial or not, all eligible children receive “thousand year candy” today—long, thin, red-and-white sweet treats—to symbolize growth and longevity. (Wikipedia has details.) Even the bag the candy is presented in is clad with cranes and turtles, both of which represent long life in the Japanese culture.

Chinese: Burn an iPad and pay respects for Qingming

A devotee burns paper money during the Qingming Festival; the Chinese believe the deceased will utilize paper versions of objects burned during QingmingTUESDAY, APRIL 5: Ancient spiritual traditions are honored with modern technology in China today, as citizens across the country observe the Qingming Festival. One English version of the name—Tomb-Sweeping Day—may seem ominous. But, there’s an uplifting purpose: For more than 2,500 years, Qingming has been a day for remembering ancestors, partly by tending to their gravesites. Families often burn paper representations of objects the deceased may need in death; and they may perform funeral services for those who have recently died. (Wikipedia has details.)

Although Hong Kong and Macau have been marking Qingming uninterrupted for millennia, most Chinese were barred from practicing the tradition by the Communist Party from 1949 until 2008. Now, the holiday is popular once again and families across China will be celebrating by burning paper versions of everything from iPhones and iPads to cars, aftershave and credit cards. (Check out a news article from XinhuaNet for more information.) The Chinese Consumers’ Association reports that more than 1,000 tons of paper products are burnt as offerings for the afterlife during each Qingming.

Culture has changed drastically since the Chinese began marking Qingming. Today’s mobility means that many people live far from ancestral villages. Adaptations include inscribing names of ancestors on paper taken to a closer cemetery for Qingming honors. (Get an American perspective from the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.)

Some Chinese wonder if being buried near one’s hometown soon will be an option only for the wealthy: Shanghai burial plots are now more expensive than most local real estate, due to lack of space. (CNN International has more.) The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs is combatting the problem by promoting cremations and the scattering of ashes, funding funerals for the underprivileged and creating standards that go into effect today. (XinhuaNet has a news article.) Some young Chinese men and women have started paying their respects online, through virtual tomb sweeping websites.

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