“Hinamatsuri,” also called Girl’s Day or the Doll’s Festival, is a day that will either charm you or leave you cold. If you have a domestic bent, or a fondness for dolls or traditional craft, it’s sure to win you over.
Officially, the day itself is on March 3, although events associated with the Doll’s Festival (especially in private homes) can last from mid-February on into early March.
The Origins of the Doll’s Festival
Most accounts of hinamatsuri trace its origins to the Heian period (approximately 800 to 1200 AD), when a custom arose in Kyoto of making dolls out of straw and floating them down rivers to the sea. The dolls, placed in small boats, were intended to carry misfortune and evil away with them, bringing a measure of safety and peace to the sender. The practice spread, and versions of it are still practiced today.
Over time, the focus of the festival centered on young girls, and their healthy growth and prosperity. In the Edo period, wealthier households began to decorate their homes with exquisitely made dolls. Arranged on tiered shelves, draped in brilliant red cloth, the dolls are meant to represent the hierarchy and familiar characters of the Heian court, with an Emperor and Empress doll enthroned at the top and ladies of the court, ministers, musicians and other figures arrayed on lower tiers, surrounded by gold screens, lamp posts and plum and peach trees in blossom, a favorite feature of the season. The dolls often go on display sometime around the middle of February, and are left out at least until Girl’s Day on March 3. Of course, they’re sometimes left out longer, but according to tradition, if they’re still on display after April 4, the daughters of the house will marry late in life.
You can still buy sets of hinamatsuri dolls, and if you can’t find them anywhere else, department stores will often have beautiful (and very expensive) displays of the dolls. Cheaper sets are available, including miniatures meant for today’s space-starved urban apartments. But many families carefully store away large collections of dolls that have been passed down and treasured for generations, and if you have a chance to visit such a home, you’ll find the dolls in their most natural setting. Luckily, there are a couple of good ways to do that around Hiroshima.
On Miyajima, the Hinamatsuri Festival extends from March until April 3, and if you’re lucky with your timing this will coincide with the blossoming of the cherry trees around the island. Displays of dolls from the Edo through to the Showa periods are placed on display for the public at more than 30 private residences, shops and temples around town. This offers a chance not only to see the magnificent collections of dolls themselves, but to get a glimpse into homes that are, of course, otherwise off limits.
Dates: March 21 to April 3, 2018
Tickets: Available at the Miyajima Ferry Terminal, along with a map of the route. Prices in recent years have been 300 JPY for adults, 170 JPY for ages 15-18, and 150J PY for ages 6-14.
The Tomo Machinami Doll’s Festival
A bit farther afield from Hiroshima city, the Tomonoura district near Fukuyama city makes a great getaway. This picturesque little port served as inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Ponyo, and was also where much of the 2013 film The Wolverine was filmed.
Hugh Jackman’s long gone, but Tomonoura is still a superb weekend destination, and if you can time your visit to coincide with the town’s Doll’s Festival, so much the better. From mid-February to late March (the dates aren’t fixed, alas) up to 100 households clustered around the central district open their doors to the public, setting out a stunning array of hina doll collections.
Dates: Variable, but doll collections will be on display through at least the first three weeks of March.
Location: Throughout the Tomonoura port district of Fukuyama city, Hiroshima prefecture.
Access from Hiroshima city: From Hiroshima Station, take the JR Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen to Fukuyama Station (approximately 23 minutes). From Fukuyama Station, take the Tomotetsu Bus to Tomonoura Bus Stop (half an hour).The port district where the festival takes place is a five-minute walk from the bus station.