Hina Matsuri, The Doll Festival

Monday is March 3rd, or the third day of the third month, and Japan will be abuzz with activity. They will be celebrating Hina Matsuri, literally translated as “Doll Festival”, though it is sometimes translated as Girl’s Day, also.

The history of Hina Matsuri goes all the way back to the 700s, during the Heian Period of Japan (if you’re unfamiliar with Heian Period, this was when Kyoto was still the capital of Japan, and the samurai class was just emerging). It has changed radically since its humble beginnings as a tradition imported from China.


It was believed that the third day of the third month was an inauspicious day, and that a person desiring to rid himself of his troubles ought to wash his feet in a river that connected to the sea. By doing so, he could purify himself against excessive yin energy. Gradually, the concept of a doll was introduced, in the form of a paper person, a hina-nagashi, which would carry the troubles of the person all the way to the sea.

By the time Edo Period (Tokyo as a feudal capital) was entering its twilight years, the festival had evolved even further. While dolls are still sent down streams on March 3rd, a much grander, flashier custom emerged. Wooden dolls, depicting specific royal families from the Heian Period, started being given to young girls. The set, which depicts an emperor, his empress, and their court, is meant to symbolize all of the grandness and fortune that surrounds the wedding of a princess to the emperor. This is why it is very bad luck for a family with a young girl to leave the set out after March 3rd. It is believed that if the set is late to be put away, the girl will be late getting married. Since the full hina sets take up to three hours to set up, it is common to hear mothers grumbling about their timed task as the final day of the festival approaches.

12850099705_96995f4585In addition to displaying these sets, people also consume special sweets and liquor during the holiday. Shirozake, a sweet, milky saké made from fermented rice, usually hits the shelves of grocery stores in early February. Diamond-shaped mochi, or white, green, and pink crackers, are also offered as snacks.

Hina sets, as expected, can be quite expensive, with the most simplistic sets of just an emperor and empress starting at around $25, and full sets falling closer to the $2,000 range. These sets are usually bought by the grandparents for their granddaughter, and given to her when she is still a small child.

Around the time that N J and I had just gotten settled in Kyoto, Kitano Tenman-gu held their annual Plum Blossom Festival. The festival is held on February 25th every year, regardless of whether or not their plum trees have started blossoming (spoiler alert: for the last three years, it has been so cold that the plums don’t start blooming until a week after the festival).

The 25th is always a good day to visit Kitano Tenman-gu, however, as that is also the day they hold their famous and truly not-to-be-missed flea market. If you want to shop antiques at a reasonable price in Kyoto, this is where you do it.

In any case, we had left the plum garden and were just going to walk through the flea market real quick, when N J noticed a full hina set on display. I assumed right away that it cost a fortune, but N J insisted we at least ask. I waited for the shop attendant to return (they’ll just leave their stalls like it’s nothing), and inquired.


$25 for a nearly complete set (the set is missing the furniture, carriage, cooking implements found in Kyoto doll sets, and so on). Sure, it was a bit quirky, and some of the dolls’ faces were stained… but… $25!

Obviously, we bought it.

Since then, it’s found a loving home with us. I took the time this year to set it up as properly as I could (there are some extra dolls, such as an extra empress that I had to “retire” because her skull cracked open this year while in storage… much sadness). I managed to take some pictures of the dolls too, which you’re free to check out in HQ over on my Flickr, or here, in the gallery below.

6 thoughts on “Hina Matsuri, The Doll Festival

  1. These dolls are so beautiful, Alex! What a find. And I really enjoyed reading about the meaning behind the festival. Your pictures are gorgeous, but I must say that the last one is my favorite. 😉


  2. Sometimes, I think it’s too bad that Americans don’t have any ancient customs like this.
    Except for the part where it’s really expensive. Christmas is bad enough.


    1. I agree with you there, Andrew, but you know, these guys are only a one-time purchase…. not every year, like Christmas! And Christmas in Japan stops being a big deal for people after they turn seven or eight. They don’t get presents after that!

      The only Japanese comparable holiday in America that I can think of off the top of my head is Mardi Gras.


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