Hinamatsuri 3rd of March

Hinamatsuri — a Girls’ Day for everyone

Girls’ Day, or Hinamatsuri, must be one of the most picturesque festivals in Japan, centring as it does on collections of exquisitely-made dolls.

The dolls, which are called hina-ningyo, represent the most Japanese qualities of beauty, craft, and mind-boggling attention to minute detail.

In early March, the dolls, each dressed in classical and often courtly attire, are set out on display on tiered stands that are covered in red cloth — a red carpet and parade of costumes to rival the one at the Oscars.

The alternative name for the festival is Doll’s Day but the temptation to associate girls and dolls as stereotyping would be mistaken. In Japan, dolls have symbolic power, and were traditionally thought to capture and contain spirits, which may be good or bad depending on the circumstances. Dolls bearing malign spirits would be floated down rivers and out to sea taking the bad luck with them, and this practice was once at the heart of Hinamatsuri ceremony — and in some shrines still is.

In modern times, the original purpose of the dolls may not be uppermost in the minds of the Japanese, who are more likely to see this as an occasion to decorate the home, revel in the beauty of the dolls and celebrate family.

Certainly, the modern dolls are too beautiful and expensive to float down any river. They may have been passed down through the generations, each family adding to the collection, or they may have been expensively bought in time for the first birthday of the first daughter.

There’s a huge variety of dolls. Some are distinctly regal in appearance, some are koto-playing musicians, and every role in between is represented. Unsurprisingly given where we are, each has its own significance. And of course, the exact positioning of each doll on the display is a matter of utmost importance. There is enough arcana in these dolls to keep you busy for a lifetime, however, we can all appreciate them without special knowledge.

Hinamatsuri is mostly a family festival, with displays put up at home. However, there are also plenty of public displays and events at stores and shrines, and anyone touring in Japan in early March will have plenty of opportunity to see these displays and marvel at them.

Girls’ Day is March 3rd, but the displays of dolls might go up at the end of February. They are all taken down on March 4th.