Japanese Traditions

Hinamatsuri (Girls Festival): A Day to Celebrate Girls in Japan

In late February last year, my husband and I found out that we were going to have a baby girl. I remember being especially excited because around that time of year there were many beautiful decorations and displays for Hinamatsuri. I knew of the tradition but having a daughter meant that I would soon be able to celebrate it with her for years to come. As this year is my daughter’s first Hinamatsuri, I thought I would share a bit about its background and how she celebrated the event.

What is Hinamatsuri?

Hinamatsuri (雛祭り), or Girls/Dolls Festival, is a yearly celebration on March 3rd for girls in Japan. It’s also known as 桃の節句 (momo no seku) or Peach Festival as it’s held during peach blossom season.

An elaborate set of multi-tiered Hina dolls on display at a hotel in Izu

From around February onwards, Hina dolls (雛人形 or hina ningyo) are displayed throughout Japan and in the homes of families with daughters to bless them with health and happiness by absorbing bad luck. These traditional dolls are of a noble couple and more elaborate sets include members of the court, ladies-in-waiting and servants. The dolls can be quite costly, ranging from a few ten-thousand yen to several hundredthousand (!), and are typically bought by grandparents or passed down to the eldest daughter by her mother.

Hina dolls for sale at Babies R Us

Origins

The origin of Hinamatsuri is difficult to pinpoint exactly as it is a combination of different traditions throughout Japanese history. One belief is that its beginnings in Japan can be traced all the way back to the Nara period (710 to 794) when people would cast paper dolls into the river on March 3rd, an auspicious day, in order to dispel bad luck and ward off malevolent spirits. Hina dolls in the Heian period (794 to 1185) that followed, however, were not associated with bad luck and instead, the daughters of nobles would play with Hina dolls that were much simpler than the ones we see now, which was called “ひな遊び (Hina asobi). Throughout the years, these two customs merged and modern day Hinamatsuri was born sometime during the Edo period (1603 to 1868). The dolls became smaller, more elaborate, and were displayed in the house, rather than played with or placed into the river, in order to protect daughters by taking in any bad luck that may harm them.

Put Away Without Delay

It is essential that Hina dolls are put away soon after March 3rd; otherwise, as superstition has it, it will take longer for the daughter (or daughters) to get married. There’s a really cute animated movie that touches on this called Mirai no Mirai (未来のミライ) where a young boy tries his best to put away his baby sister’s dolls because their father forgot.

When exactly to put away the dolls, though, varies in Japan according to region and families. Some families put it away the next day, others wait two weeks and some keep the dolls displayed for the entire month of March. It’s also important not to start displaying the dolls the day before Hinamatsuri as that’s considered bad luck. Displaying the dolls right after New Years is best.

What to Eat on Hinamatsuri

There are several traditional dishes that families eat to celebrate Hinamatsuri:

  • ハマグリのお吸い物 (hamaguri no osuimono) or clam soup


    Clams are considered auspicious in Japan and also symbolize a perfectly matched couple that will last a lifetime as clam shells can only close if both sides fit together in unison.

  • ひしもち (hishimochi) or glutinous rice cakes


    Hishimochi
    are colorful little rice cakes layered in pink, white and green and represent the wish for girls to be healthy, grow and have an enriching life.

  • ちらし寿司 (chirashizushi)

    Chirashizushi is a large bowl of sushi rice with a variety of toppings that have meaning. For instance, shrimp symbolizes longevity as they are curved similar to the back of an old woman. The holes within lotus root are meant to represent being able to have foresight. Lastly, beans (edamame) stand for diligency.

  • ひなあられ (hina arare)


    This is a puffed rice snack unique to Hinamatsuri. It usually comes in four colors that represent the four seasons: pink, green, yellow, and white. By displaying all four colors of hina arare, it is believed that daughters will be healthy for all four seasons. Some areas in Japan have hina arare in only three colors (pink, white and green), but the meaning remains the same. Depending on the region of Japan, these snacks can be salty or sweet.

Although it’s not traditional, many cake shops also sell special, colorful cakes for Hinamatsuri that are usually decorated with edible Hina dolls.

Hinamatsuri cakes at Ginza Cozy Corner, a popular cake shop chain in Japan

Baby A’s First Hinamatsuri

When we went to visit my husband’s family during New Years, my mother-in-law gifted Baby A with a beautiful set of Hina dolls that were made by my husband’s great-aunt over four decades ago. I feel very grateful that Baby A has such a lovely family heirloom that she can pass down if she chooses to have children.

Baby A’s Hina dolls

My mother-in-law also suggested that we celebrate Hinamatsuri early while we were in Hiroshima, as this would be Baby A’s first and they wouldn’t be able to come to Tokyo in March. My mother-in-law decided to keep it simple with homemade chirashizushi topped with egg, lotus root and shrimp, and an adorable store-bought cake. (As we were celebrating it quite early, we had to settle for something a little more simple than the usual Hinamatsuri cakes that are sold in shops at the beginning of March). The writing on the cake says 初節句(はつせっく), which means “first Hinamatsuri”. We took some photos and Baby A received a monetary gift from her grandparents as this was her first Hinamatsuri. It was a small and laid back celebration that I look forward to doing with my daughter again next year.

Cake, small Hina doll figures, chirashizushi, and a monetary gift

Baby A trying to take all the chirashizushi for herself. After all, it was her day!

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