Japan is a country with many different events and ceremonies. One of the most colourful and special traditions takes place on March 3rd, and it is known as the Dolls' Day, Girls' Day or Hinamatsuri (雛祭り). A day to celebrate and think about happiness and good health, as praying for a good future, of all young girls in Japanese families. This tradition goes back to the 8th century, when the celebration for the boys (on May 5th) and the girls (on March 3rd) was settled and legally established afterwards in 1687.
Back in time, the Dolls' Festival has a long and unusual history. Originally, it was a day for a ritual purification known as “Seasonal Festival of the Snake” (Jōshi no Sekku, 上巳の節句). People used to rub their bodies with crude human-shaped figurines made of paper, wood, straw or clay. Formerly, dolls were thought to possess the power to contain bad spirits. The figurines served as scapegoat for taking on the spiritual evil or pollution and bad karma. In Japanese, the word for “snake” (jōshi, 上巳) is homonym to the word for girl (joshi, 女子), that is why, eventually, it became a day devoted to girls in Japanese families.
In later centuries, the day of the festival moved to the third day of the third month and known as “Drinking Around a Rolling Stream” (kyokusui no en, 曲水の宴). This was an elegant and cultured festival game traditional for the aristocrats during the Nara period (710-794). A bowl would be floated down a stream, usually an artificial garden one, with a cup of wine. Participants sitting downstream had to compose an recite a poem before the bowl reached them. This tradition was modified during the Heian period (794-1185), when tiny dolls figurines known as katashiro (形代) and hitogata (人形) were cast off into rivers or ponds, sending away bad luck, spiritual pollution and evil spirits. The tradition filtered down from aristocrats to common people during the Edo period (1603-1868), who changed it leading to contemporary charming Dolls' Festival.
The ritual dolls became more decorative, dressed in Japanese traditional clothes or kimono and children used to sleep with them the night before they were cast off, drawing out impurities overnight. It can be thought that some of these ritual dolls derived into non-ritual uses known as “little things” (hiina or hina, 雛), which came to be the ones used nowadays for the Dolls' Festival (connecting the ritual dolls and the play dolls). Thus, it is also called “Peach Blossom Festival” (momo no sekku, 桃の節句) for it is the season when the peach trees are usually in full bloom; traditionally a day for symbolic spiritual ablutions or ritual cleansing against evil spirits performed by a pond or river, using water and rice wine to clean mouth, hands and feet.
The essence of this festival is materialized in a displayed set of dolls. Dressed in the traditional fashion of the Imperial court of the Heian period, these court dolls are part of the “hina-ningyo” (雛人形) tradition. Nowadays, they are no longer cast away, usually a set is handed down from generation to generation as heirlooms, families buy one for a girl's first festival (hatsuzekku, 初節句). The dolls are placed in an specific order (different in the Kanto region and the Kansai region of Japan) on a platform (hina dan, 雛壇) with a variable number of different tiers or levels (from 5 to 7), covered in a red carpet (dankake, 段駆or himôsen, 緋毛氈) with a rainbow stripes at the bottom. According to the tradition, each one of the dolls and tiers has its relevance and symbolism.
The first platform, also called top or tier, is the first of the levels. This holds 2 dolls known as the Imperial dolls (dairibina, 内裏雛). There are the Emperor (Obina, 男雛) and the Empress (Mebina, 女雛). The male, traditionally on the right side, holds a ritual baton (shaku, 笏). The female,commonly on the left side, holds a fan and wears a twelve-layered ceremonial robe (juuni hitoe, 十二単).
Both dolls are usually placed in front of a gold folding screen (byōbu, 屏風) and guarded by paper or silk lanterns (hibukuro, 火袋) or lamp stands (bonbori, 雪洞), usually decorated with cherry or plum blossom patterns representing the spring season. Complete sets might include other accessories placed between the two figures (sanbō kazari, 三方飾) with two vases of artificial peach branch (kuchibana, 口花).
The second tier holds 3 court ladies (sannin kanjo, 三人官女). These ladies hold an element, object or accessory related to Japanese alcohol or sake. The standing lady on the left, from the viewer's perspective, is the backup sake-bearer (kuwae no chōshi, 加えの銚子). The only lady in the middle is the seated sake-bearer (sanpō, 三方). The standing lady on the right is the long-handled sake-bearer (nagae no chōshi, 長柄の銚子). The other accessories placed between the ladies are stands with round table-tops (takatsuki, 高坏) for seasonal sweets.
The third tier holds 5 male court musicians (gonin bayashi, 五人囃子). Each musicians holds different musical instruments, except for the singer who holds a fan. They different musicians are: seated small drum (taiko, 太鼓), standing large drum (ōtsuzumi, 大鼓), standing hand drum (kotsuzumi, 小鼓), seated flute (fue, 笛 or yokobue, 横笛) and the standing singer (utaikata, 謡い方) holding a traditional fan (sensu, 扇子).
The fourth tier holds 2 figures of the imperial ministers (daijin, 大臣). Each one of the figures has an specific name. The Minister of the Right, depicted as a young person on the left, is known as Udaijin (右大臣) and the Minister of the Left, much older on the right, is known as Sadaijin (左大臣). Sometimes, these characters are equipped with bows and arrows. Also, between the figures there are covered bowl tables (kakebanzen, 掛掛盤膳or ozen, お膳), diamond-shaped stands (hishidai, 菱台) bearing diamond-shaped rice cakes (hishimochi, 菱餅), and diamond-shaped stands with feline-shaped legs (nekoashigata hishidai, 猫足形菱台). Just below the ministers there are a mandarin orange tree (ukon no tachibana, 右近の橘) and a cherry blossom tree (sakon no sakura, 左近の桜).
The fifth tier holds, between the trees, the 3 helpers or samurais protecting the Empress and Emperor. They are maudlin drinker (nakijōgo, 泣き上戸), cantankerous drinker (okorijōgo, 怒り上戸) and merry drinker (waraijōgo, 笑い上戸).
The sixth and seventh tier hold a variety of miniature furniture, carriages, tools and other accessories. The sixth tier has court items that can be found within the imperial palace: a chest of drawers (tansu, 箪笥), a long chest used for kimono storage (nagamochi, 長持) with a smaller clothing storage box on top (hasamibako, 挟箱), a small chest of drawers with a mirror on top (kyōdai, 鏡台), a sewing kit box (haribako, 針箱), two braziers (hibachi, 火鉢) and a large utensil stand (daisu, 台子) with a set of utensils for the tea ceremony (ocha dōgu, お茶道具 and cha no yu dōgu, 茶の湯道具). Last, the seventh tier or bottom, is completed with miniature items used and found outside the imperial residence: a set of nested lacquered food boxes (jubako, 重箱), a palanquin (gokago, 御駕籠), a carriage drawn by an ox (goshoguruma, 御所車 or gyuusha, 牛車) and a less common ox drawing a cart of flowers (hanaguruma, 花車).
Together with the dolls tradition, there are a lot of special dishes for the festival. The traditional colours for this festival are white (purification), green (health) and pink or red (chase away evil spirits). These colours can be seen in the traditional food for the festival. Diamond-shaped rice cakes (hishimochi, 菱餅) decorated with the three colours, bean paste-filled rice cakes with cherry leaves (sakuramochi, 桜餅), special sushi rice flavoured with sugar and vinegar (chirashizushi, 散らし寿司), rice cake crackers cubes flavoured with sugar or soy sauce (hina arare, 雛霰), sweet white sake made from fermented rice (shirozake, 白酒) and salt-based soup with clam shells (ushiojiru, 潮汁). Clam shells are very representative, since they are a symbol of a united couple, recalling to the idea of the daughters finding a good partner, peaceful and united, for a marriage in the future.
The representations and figures can be seen all over Japan during the celebration of the Girls' Day, reminding to all the people in Japan how important is the health and happiness for the life of their daughters, as for the future of a country and a society. The decoration will be removed immediately after the date because, according to the tradition, leaving these ornaments for longer than past March 4th can lead to a late marriage for the daughter of the family. It is a beautiful way of chasing away bas spirits, wishing the best future for the girls of a family and remembering the importance of the happiness and health of the younger ones for the future life and good evolution of a human society.