Each year on March 3, the Hina Matsuri (雛祭り), also called Girl’s Day or Doll’s Day, is celebrated all over Japan. Families pray for the happiness and growth of young girls. A similar holiday called Children’s Day (こどもの日) is celebrated on May 5.
The placement of ornamental dolls, called hina-ningyō, starts around mid to end February. These dolls are displayed on a stair-like platform covered in red carpet ending in rainbow stripes at the bottom, and represent the imperial court of the Heian period. They feature the Emperor, Empress, attendants, and musicians in a traditional garment from that period. Every doll is placed hierarchically, starting with the Emperor and Empress on top, and usually ending with transport carriages.
While it is usual to have five to seven platforms, families living in small houses or apartments have often only one platform, where only the Emperor and Empress dolls are displayed.
This holiday traces its origins back to the floating doll custom Heian Period, called hina-nagashi. Back then, two straw hina dolls -one male, one female- were put on a small boat, and sent down the river. By floating these dolls away, it is said that they would carry away one’s misfortune and bad spirits.
Nowadays, the Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto still celebrates this old custom by releasing hina dolls where the Takano and Kamo river meet, and pray for the children’s safety.
It is customary to drink shirozake while enjoying the colorful hina-arare, a sort of flavored crackers, as well hishimochi, a diamond-shaped colored rice cake, the same kind as portrayed on the fourth platform of the hina-dan (see below). Ushiojiru, a soup contain clams still within their shells is also eaten. These shells are the symbol of a united couple.
Once the day is over, the dolls are immediately taken down, as it is said that leaving the dolls past March 4 would result in a late marriage for the daughter.
Placement of each platform
※ Note that the positions are written from the viewer’s perspective
First, top platform
The upper platform holds the imperial dolls, called dairi-bina. In the traditional Kansai style arrangement, the Emperor is on the right side from the viewer’s perspective, but on the left side in the modern Kanto style arrangement.
The Emperor holds a ritual baton, while the Empress holds a fan. They are placed in front of a golden folding screen called Byōbu, besides Japanese trees. Two lampposts called bonbori are placed on both sides of the dolls. Two paper or silk lanterns known as hibukuro are optionally put next to the platform. These are usually decorated with either cherry or plum blossom patterns.
Three court ladies called san-nin kanjo stand on the second platform, holding sake equipment. In between them are takatsuki, stands with round table-tops for seasonal sweets.
The left and right standing ladies are very similar to each other, with the one on the right being the long-handled sake-bearer Nagae no chōshi, and the one on the left is the backup sake-bearer Kuwae no chōshi. The middle lady is seated sake bearer Sanpō.
Five male musicians stand on the third platform. They are called gonin bayashi, and all hold a music instrument with the exception of the singer on the right side, who holds a Japanese fan called sensu.
The far left musician is seated and holds a small drum called taiko. The next musician is standing, and holds a large drum called Ōtsuzumi. In the middle stands the kotuzumi, the hand drum. The fourth musician is seated and uses a flute, called fue or yokobue. Finally, there is the singer called utaikata, seated on the far right side.
The fourth platform displays two ministers (daijin) on each end, Udaijin, the older Minister of the Left, and Sadaijin the younger Minister of the Right. Bowl tables called kakebanzen or ozen, as well as diamond-shaped stands hishidai with diamond-shaped rice cakes hishimochi are placed between them.
Right below the ministers of the fourth platform are two trees. Below the Minister of Left lays a cherry blossom tree sakon no sakura, and a mandarin tree ukon no tachibana below the Minister of Right.
Between the trees are three helpers or samurai meant to protect the Emperor and Empress. The one on the left is the maudlin drinker nakijōgo, with the quarrelsome drinker okorijōgo in the middle, and the merry drinker waraijōgo on the right.
There are no dolls displayed on the last two platforms, only a variety of miniatures such as carriages and furniture.
This platform shows item used within the palatial residence.
Tansu → Chest with five drawers.
Nagamochi → A long chest used to store kimonos.
Hasamibako → A smaller box used to store clothing. Two of them are placed on the nagamochi.
Kyōdai → Small chest of drawers with a mirror placed on top.
Haribako → Sewing box.
Ishōbukuro → Bag of clothing.
Hibachi → Braziers. Two of them are usually displayed.
Chadōgu → A set of tea ceremony utensils.
The last platform displays items used outside of the palatial residence.
Okago → A palanquin.
Jubako → A set of nested lacquered food boxes with either a cord tied vertically around the boxes or a stiff handle that locks them together.
Goshoguruma → An ox carriage, sometimes drawn by the doll of an ox.
Hanaguruma → An ox cart filled with flowers.