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Hina Matsuri
Celebrating Girls' Day in Kyoto, Past & Present

A noble and beautiful Ohina-sama doll from 1960s.

On March 3, Japanese people celebrate Hina Matsuri, a festival for girls with ancient roots. In homes across Japan, families display heirloom dolls - some that have been passed down for generations- from around mid-February until March 4. This tradition dates back to the Heian period (794-1185), when it was popular for girls of the court to play with dolls. Since then, the dolls came to be viewed as caretakers of the girls' health and happiness, warding off bad luck and bringing in good fortune.

We can only imagine the dolls' legacy, as they watch over generations of girls - through childhood, student life, courtship and marriage - as they grow up to become fine, strong women and have daughters of their own. Why do we take the dolls down on March 4? Well, it's a superstition that dolls left on display too long delay the girls' marriage.

The most important and main dolls: Odairi-sama (right) and Ohina-sama (left), dressed in elaborate multi-layered silk costumes.

There are many kinds of hina ningyo dolls. Each doll maker (Kyoto has a number of famous artisans) has their own style. The facial expression of each doll set is quite different depending on the craftsperson. Some look childish with round smiling faces while others have elegant and dignified faces. Their hairstyle, the patterns on their costume, colors, etc. are all different too.

The simplest set consists of only a single stage with 2 dolls while some gorgeous ones have 7 sets of stairs with 15 dolls, seven and fifteen being auspicious numbers. The main dolls represent the Odairi-sama (Emperor) and Ohina-sama (Empress), and are dressed in elaborately gorgeous, multi-layered silk Heian-style garments. They sit regally on a shelf, surrounded by intricate props and decorations evoking the lavish style of the Imperial court. This pair is the most common set owned by most households.

Next in line are Sannin Kanjo (three maidsin- waiting), and after them come the Gonin Bayashi (five court musicians with various instruments) holding various traditional musical instruments. The last ones are U-daijin (the court minister on the right) and Sa-daijin (the court minister on the left) who are the loyal guards and servants of the emperor.

Between each doll, various kinds of miniature furniture and fittings are presented such as wardrobes, sake ware, wooden plates, trays, palanquins, carts, etc. Don't look on them as toys or something tinny. Not only is their structure really fine and accurate, but they are also decorated with real gold foil and first-class lacquer. They are not something that small children play with but something considered valuable as art crafts.

Shiro-zake: White, unfiltered and sweet, it came to be associated with girls, even though women did not necessarily drink sake in the old days. The pure-white color of the sake also compliments the pink of the plum blossoms.

Hina Arare: Small, blossom or snowflake-like pink, white and green balls of crunchy puffed rice, sometimes sweetened with sugar.

In Kyoto, it is not unusual that a set of hina ningyo dolls have been handed down from mother to daughter, across generations. Every traditional household has a set of hina ningyo dolls, whether they are just a set of two (The Emperor and Empress) or a cast of many.

Hishimochi: Lovely, diamond-shaped mochi (rice cakes) with pink, white and green layers. Pink represents plum blossom, white represents the snow of the waning winter, and green represents the new, fresh growth of early spring.

Perhaps more rarely seen today is a style of doll made in the Edo period (1600-1868) called Tachi-bina (standing dolls). Here, the dolls are made in a simple style that looks like paper origami, with Heian-style multilayered garments lovingly (and sometimes) lavishly painted. Kyoto was once filled with doll makers that made this style before they switched to the Suwari-bina (sitting dolls), which then became more popular.

Being works of art, they are quite expensive and regarded as treasures of the household, not dolls to play with in the usual sense. If you aren't able to visit a home during your stay, you can see displays of hina ningyo dolls at shops and department stores, as well as some of the finer restaurants, hotels and ryokan (Japanese inns). Some museums also hold special exhibitions of dolls.

Recommended Events to Meet & Experience Traditional Hina Matsuri Festival
*Time, date and information of events are subject to change.

March 3
Nagashi-bina at Shimogamo Shrine

Sandawara (small dolls made of straw) floating on Mitarashi River

Shimogamo Shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its history traces back to the 8th century. The shrine is situated on the west side of the Takano River and there is a small brook and Tadasu-no-mori Forest in the precinct. The shrine was at its most prosperous during the reign of the Emperor Saga (809-823), thus, many of the shrine's elaborate architectural designs and traditions come from this time.

Nagashi-bina is a Hina Matsuri ritual that is said to have started during the Heian period (794-1185). This is also believed to be the origin of the Hina Matsuri festival today. In olden times, people floated small figure paper dolls down a stream, river or on the ocean praying for their children's healthy growth and to get rid of bad fortunes.

At Shimogamo Shrine, every year on March 3rd, sandawara (small dolls made out of straw) will be given to the first 200 visitors. They can float the sandawara on the Mitarashi River running through the precinct. This is a very popular Hina Matsuri ritual in Kyoto that attracts many tourists every year. Free ama-zake (sweet sake) is provided and a Japanese harp concert will be held too.

Admission Free; Gate open from 10:00; Ritual starts from 10:30; Access: Kyoto City Bus #205, get off at Shimogamo Jinja-mae; Tel: 075-761-3460; www.shimogamo-jinja.or.jp

March 3
Hina Matsuri Festival at Ichihime Shrine

People dressed in the Heian-period costumes at Ichihime Shrine

Since this shrine enshrines only female deities, Ichihime Shrine is famous for protecting women and it is especially said that all kinds of women's wishes come true here. From all over Japan, women visit the shrine to ward off evil for the year.

An unusual and interesting Hina Matsuri event will be held on March 3rd at Ichihime Shrine. In addition to formal rituals at the shrine hall, visitors are able to watch or even join in games that were played among the Heian aristocrats (from around 13:30). A gorgeous juni hitoe (12-layer kimono) dressing demonstration show is also worth watching.

The most fun part of this festival is that the actual people wear the Heian-period costumes representing a hina ningyo dolls set (from around 15:00). They even play instruments! You can try on wearing olden day costumes as well.

2,000 yen (Entry to the shrine, an amulet, a bowl of matcha green tea and a sweet); Access: Kyoto City Bus #17, 205, get off at Kawaramachi Shomen; Tel: 075-361-2775; ichihime.net

March 1-April 3
Special Doll Exhibition at Hokyo-ji Temple

The beautiful tayu joins the doll ceremony at Hokyo-ji Temple
© Mary Thomas Meilhan

This temple was built around 1370 by a nun in the northern part of the city. From generation to generation, imperial princesses had served as chief priestesses. For this reason, the temple has so many kinds of Japanese traditional dolls, which were given to them from the Kyoto Imperial Palace as a gift.

Every spring, Hokyo-ji Temple holds an amazing decorative doll exhibition. A special memorial service and dance performance by tayu (a high-ranking geisha) from the Shimabara district will be held on the opening day of the event (March 1st; 11:00-11:30; Reservation required).

600 yen (special event will be held only on March 1st); 10:00-16:00; Access: Kyoto City Bus #9, get off at Horikawa Teranouchi; Tel: 075-451-1550; www.hokyoji.net

March 3
Shunto-e at Sanjusangen-do Temple

A set of hina ningyo and the magnificent statue of Senju Kannon at Sanjusangen-do Temple
Photo courtesy of Sanjusangen-do Temple

This temple was originally built in 1164 at the request of the retired Emperor Goshirakawa. After it burnt to the ground, it was rebuilt in 1266. Its significant long main hall is the length of 118 meters from north to south, consisting of 1,001 Kannon wooden statues. The highlight is the 100 armed Senju Kannon which was carved by the famed sculptor Tankei in 1254.

In tribute to the name of the temple (''Sanjusan'' means ''thirty-three''), this spring festival is held on the day which doubles the number three, which is March 3rd. One of the famous flower schools, Ikenobo, will offer a special flower arrangement ceremony to the deity. A special amulet only sold on this day called the ''peach amulet,'' will be available.

Admission free; 9:00-15:30; On the east side of Yamato-oji, south of Shichijo; Access: Kyoto City Bus #100, 206, 208, get off at Hakubutsukan Sanjusangendo-mae; Tel: 075-561-0467; sanjusangendo.jp

My Hina Ningyo
Dolls from me to my adored ones for the future
Aya Okubo, KVG Editor in Chief

I was born as the first child in my family and my grandparents presented me with a grand 7-story hina ningyo doll set for Hina Matsuri when I was only 7 months old. Over the years, I played with my dolls, even though I wasn't supposed to, and forever admired their elaborate clothing, the delicate colors, the instruments the musicians held, and the magical aura and power of the entire arrangement. When I was older, my mom told me that it was hard to stop me from constantly touching and picking up the different dolls.

My doll set, from what I remember and what I have learned since, included the dignified appearance of Emperor and Empress at the top, three beautiful female servants, a gallant U-daijin and Sa-daijin (Minister of the Right and Left, respectively), and five musicians with their different instruments. The details on these dolls are amazing: the delicate folds in the kimono, their expressions. You feel that you can hear the music the musicians make with their various instruments: drum, flute, bell, etc. What a treasure this doll set was. What memories I have of fascination and imagination. And I certainly grew up strong and healthy: my dolls did their magic for me, as they were lovingly created to do.

Despite my love for the hina ningyo when I was little, I hardly remembered my hina ningyo as I grew up to be a busy teenager or even older. My dolls were sleeping for years and years in the closet. However, they have had a chance to come out to the outer world for the last several years.

Today I have two little nieces and my hina ningyo belong to them. When I joined the setting up of the big doll set in the girls' room some years ago, I remembered how much I loved the dolls and I felt grateful to have had a chance to meet my dear hina ningyo again after many years. My little nieces were excited and couldn't help touching and playing with them exactly as I did when I was their age.

This year, we will have the hina ningyo set in the room and I will have a chance to sit down and talk to them about all that has happened over these many years. I'm dreaming, a few decades later, the next generation of little girls might also be enjoying playing with my hina ningyo.