- Life & Culture
A Guide to Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day) Festival in Japan
Hinamatsuri is a cherished festival in Japan, celebrating the happiness of young girls.
Also known as the ‘Japanese Doll Festival’ or ‘Happy Girls’ Day’, Hinamatsuri takes place every year on March 3rd. This festival has a fascinating history dating back centuries. It has evolved into a vibrant and elegant tradition in Japan, encompassing much more than displaying dolls.
With roots in Japan’s Shinto religion, there is no strict way to honour Hinamatsuri. In this article, we explain the festival’s origins, what the dolls symbolise, and how you can celebrate it.
What happens during a typical Hinamatsuri festival?
During the Happy Girls’ Day festival, families in Japan will typically display a set of dolls.
The dolls are often placed on a tiered platform and may be beautifully crafted and decorated. They traditionally represent an imperial court of Emperor, Empress, attendants and musicians.
Families and friends come together to appreciate the dolls, offer prayers for the happiness of young girls, and enjoy special food and sweets together. There may also be craft activities, tea ceremonies, and local festivities to enjoy – creating a joyful celebration of family and heritage.
However, as we’ll cover in this blog, there are many different ways to celebrate Hinamatsuri.
What is the cultural significance of Hinamatsuri?
Hinamatsuri holds an essential place in Japanese culture. As well as celebrating the health and well-being of young girls (especially those under 10), it embodies wider traditional values like:
- Family – by bringing together members to enjoy traditional customs and meals
- Prosperity – by symbolically wishing for the happiness and success of young girls
- Heritage – by serving as a reminder of Japan’s rich history and cultural legacy
Japan is known for its many customs and rituals. The intricate displays of Hinamatsuri dolls reflect a deep appreciation for artistry, craftsmanship and the preservation of cultural traditions.
Many Japanese families still celebrate the festival, keeping it alive through generations.
Where did the Japanese doll festival first come from?
The roots of Hinamatsuri can be traced back to ancient purification rituals in Japan – bad luck and impurities were transferred onto dolls, which were then symbolically set adrift on a river.
Over time, these ancient rituals combined with the courtly tradition of displaying dolls from the Heian period (794-1185). The Hinamatsuri we know today, with the traditional display of beautifully arranged dolls, was first practised in 1629 by the mother of Princess Meisho.
According to Wikipedia, Meisho’s mother created a display of dolls showing the princess “blissfully wedded”. At the time, female emperors in Japan were not allowed to marry.
How did the tradition change over time?
The festival has been through many changes over time, here are some notable examples:
Heian (794-1185): The practice of displaying dolls began among royalty. Hina dolls were often made of paper or wood and represented members of an imperial court. At first, the dolls had a more religious significance and were believed to carry away impurities or ward off evil.
Edo (1603-1868): The festival became more widespread and began incorporating regional customs and practices, further establishing it as a beloved celebration for everyone.
Meiji Restoration (1868): With the Meiji Restoration, the Hinamatsuri festival faced a decline in popularity. Its traditions were temporarily overshadowed by the adoption of Western holidays.
Taisho & Showa (1912-1989): There was a revival of interest in traditional Japanese culture. Hinamatsuri became more prominent in Japan, with people investing more in hina dolls.
Post-WWII – now: In modern times, Hinamatsuri has adapted to smaller living spaces and contemporary tastes. Some families choose to display more compact doll displays or may incorporate themed dolls, quirky decorations, and updated versions of traditional dishes.
There are also many regional variations of Hinamatsuri around Japan. The adaptability of the festival is a testament to its significance and ongoing appeal in wider Japanese culture.
What do the dolls represent in Hinamatsuri?
Each doll on the tiered platform represents a specific role in Japanese court culture. There are usually 7 tiers, with the order of dolls on each level of the platform often staying the same.
- The Emperor and Empress represent an imperial couple and sit on the top-tier platform. Families often ensure girls have a set of these two main dolls before their first festival.
- The Three Court Attendants on the second tier are there to serve sake to the Emperor and Empress. They’re often shown as ladies holding utensils or doing a tea ceremony.
- The Five Musicians on the third tier shows male figures playing traditional instruments – a little drum, a big drum, a hand drum, a flute, and a singer holding a folding fan.
- The Two Ministers are displayed on the fourth tier and reflect the governance of the court. The Minister of the Right is often shown as older than the Minister of the Left.
- The Three Helpers/Protectors on the fifth platform show three helpers of the Emperor and Empress. They’re often shown as laughing, angry and crying characters.
Tiers 6 and 7 sometimes show guards protecting the imperial court, alongside a collection of miniature furniture and transport – this could include carriages, chests of drawers and boxes.
In modern times, smaller displays are often more practical than the traditional 7-tier platform.
As well as being beautifully crafted, the dolls carry their own symbolism. They collectively represent the elegance of a Japanese imperial court and serve as a reminder of courtly customs and Japan’s rich history. By setting up the display, families express love for their daughters.
Symbolically, hina dolls absorb and carry away misfortune and bad luck from young girls. Dolls may be passed from generation to generation, or a new set may be bought at a baby girl’s birth.
What are other traditional customs on Girls’ Day?
As well as a doll display, there are many other traditions and ways to enjoy Hinamatsuri:
- Eating festive food and sweets! There are some lovely dishes to enjoy, including colourful scattered sushi, tri-coloured rice cakes, and clear clam soup. They’re all very pretty.
- Displaying peach blossoms in bloom! An alternative name for Hinamatsuri is ‘the peach blossom festival’ because traditionally they were believed to drive away evil spirits.
- Wearing a colourful kimono! On Hinamatsuri, young girls often wear traditional Japanese clothing, such as their best kimono and a cape-like piece of clothing called a hifu.
- Performing a tea ceremony! Known as ‘Hina matcha’, this traditional Japanese ritual is a serene and harmonious experience that families and guests can enjoy together.
- Doing a purification ritual! Some families offer water and sake to the dolls, symbolically cleansing them. They may also pray for the happiness of girls in the household.
- Making crafts and origami dolls! Activities may include making paper lanterns for decorating the home or creating miniature versions of hina dolls from paper or clay.
All of these customs provide an opportunity for friends and family to gather together and celebrate the happiness and well-being of young girls. It’s a great way to make memories.
Do Hinamatsuri customs vary by region in Japan?
Although the above traditions are seen all over Japan, some regions have distinct customs.
Nagashibina: Hinamatsuri has roots in ancient purification rituals, and in some areas of Japan people float paper or straw dolls down a river or stream, symbolically carrying away misfortune.
Hina Doll Parades: Some areas of Japan feature parades of people dressed like hina dolls, who march and carry the hina dolls through the streets – often accompanied by music and dancing.
Regional Doll Variations: There are different ‘styles’ of dolls across Japan. Kyoto hina dolls are extremely refined, while in Fukuoka small handmade dolls are displayed using hanging strings.
Local Festivals: Some festivals incorporate traditional performances, games and foods unique to the local area. The community may gather together around doll displays to celebrate.
Japan has a fantastic sense of tradition and community, so taking part in your local Hinamatsuri festival is an exciting way to experience local culture and see out-of-the-ordinary festivities.
Tips for creating your own Hinamatsuri display
If you want to create your own stunning display to celebrate Hinamatsuri, here are some tips!
First, focus on arranging your hina dolls in a symmetrical and harmonious manner. Follow the order of dolls as explained earlier in our blog post, with your Emperor and Empress at the top.
Use a tiered platform or shelves to display your dolls, allowing an elegant presentation. An authentic display pays great attention to detail, from the dolls themselves to the accessories and decorations. Why not add family heirlooms and sentimental items to make it even more special?
As well as the dolls, you can craft a display that incorporates other handmade crafts and decor:
- Seasonal flowers such as peach blossoms are an iconic choice for a display – they represent beauty and renewal and are reminiscent of a traditional Japanese garden.
- Origami flowers in red, gold and pink can add a festive feeling to your display. You can fold paper to create classic flowers, cranes, or even miniature paper hina dolls.
- Traditional Japanese lanterns – made from paper or silk – add a soft glow to your display, making it feel extra alluring and atmospheric. Place them strategically around your home.
- Luxury fabrics like brocade and silk will make your presentation even more authentic. Use as a backdrop or tablecloth, and look for patterns like fans or cherry blossoms.
If you’re a newcomer to Japan and want to create a culturally authentic display, why not ask a friend from Japan to help you enjoy Hinamatsuri? It’s an uplifting experience for everyone!
3 classic Hinamatsuri dishes and recipes to try
One of the most beloved things about this Japanese festival is the delicious food eaten.
Not only does Hinamatsuri food reflect the joys of spring, but it carries symbolic meanings related to the festival and its blessings for young girls. Here are three iconic festive dishes to enjoy.
- Chirashizushi (Scattered Sushi): This colourful dish comprises various ingredients such as fresh fish, vegetables and garnishes, scattered over white sushi rice. The dish represents a wish for rich harvests and prosperity. Why not try this recipe?
- Hinaarare (Colorful Rice Crackers): These crunchy, sweet rice crackers are made with sticky rice, sugar and food colouring. In peach, green, yellow, and white, they represent the four seasons and a wider meaning of wishing happiness for girls all year round.
- Hishimochi (Diamond-Shaped Rice Cakes): A stunning sweet with three distinctive layers, these traditional sweets represent pink peach flowers, the cleansing effects of snow, and the health benefits of Japanese mugwort. Here’s an authentic recipe.
If you find yourself at one of the many local events, you may find these dishes served. Or make these special festive dishes yourself at home to celebrate Hinamatsuri in your own way.
Crafts and activities for Happy Girls’ Day
Hinamatsuri is especially loved by families with young girls – many families get together over the festival to spend quality time together. Here are a couple of things to do if you’re feeling festive.
How to create an origami doll
How to create a paper lantern
Some families also play traditional games like hide and seek! If you’re teaching in Japan (or have joined a school as one of our ALTs or Assistant Language Teachers), you may see these in class.
You may also want to dress in traditional clothing during Hinamatsuri or visit your local shrine.
5 places in Japan to visit during Hinamatsuri
Hinamatsuri is celebrated throughout Japan, here are 5 places it’s particularly spectacular.
Rich in tradition, Kyoto is an amazing place to visit in Japan. As the ancient capital, many shrines hold exquisite hina doll displays. Don’t miss the Shimogamo Shrine’s ‘Nagashibina’ celebration – where paper dolls are floated down a stream by a man and woman in traditional dress.
Japan’s capital city has an abundance of events during Hinamatsuri, including numerous displays. Look out for Koishikawa Korakuen and Rikugien Garden – traditional gardens which celebrate the festival in style. You’ll also see department stores stuffed to the brim with dolls!
The Hina Doll Festival of Tono is in Iwate Prefecture, in the northern part of Japan. Towns like Tono have centuries-old doll traditions, with a custom of going between houses saying “Please show me your hina dolls”. Today, you can see treasured family heirloom dolls displayed.
One of Japan’s biggest doll festival events, head to Katsurra in Chiba for the Big Hina Doll Festival. There are thousands of dolls on display all around the city, and they are illuminated in the evening. As well as the displays, there is a doll procession and parade through the city.
5. Seto City
Visit the Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum for an immersive creative experience at Hinamatsuri. Try your hand at making a ceramic hina doll, or enjoy displays of glass and earthenware dolls. Downtown Seto is decorated with cute hina dolls, including a gigantic pyramid made of them.
Can I celebrate Hinamatsuri outside of Japan?
Japan isn’t the only place where the March 3rd doll festival takes place – many countries celebrate Hinamatsuri where there are significant Japanese communities or influences:
- Countries with substantial Japanese populations, like the US, Brazil and Canada
- Japanese cultural centres around the world may display Hinamatsuri displays
- Sushi and Japanese restaurants may have themed menus, events and dishes
- International schools with Japanese students may learn or practice Hinamatsuri
- Online communities allow people to share their doll displays and dishes virtually
If you’re feeling enchanted by the idea of celebrating Hinamatsuri, why not visit Japan during the festival, or move to Japan to work? Contact us to check out our latest teaching positions.
Alternatively, find out more about Japan’s festivals and culture, such as cherry blossom season.