Hina Matsuri: Japan’s Girls’ Day Explained

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Since the Heian Period (794-1195), every year on March 3rd is Girls’ Day, also known as Doll’s Festival or ‘Hina Matsuri’ in Japanese. This is a day in which families all over Japan wish for the health and prosperity of their young girls (generally those up to the age of about 10 years old).

On Girls’ Day, families will often eat fun Girls Day foods such as hina arare (colored Japanese rice crackers) and sakura mochi (rice cakes made with red bean and pickled cherry blossom leaf) and display a set of dolls. In some rural areas, they continue with a tradition of floating paper dolls down a river (nagashi bina) to say goodbye to all the bad luck that might come that year. 

Origins of Girls’ Day

It is widely believed that the Dolls’ Festival is taken from a Chinese doll festival in which dolls are floated down a river, to carry away girls’ bad luck and misfortune. In the past, it was also called ‘peach season festival’ or ‘momo no sekku.’

This was then mixed with hina-asobi, which means ‘playing with dolls,’ which was a popular pastime among aristocratic children at the time. Soon, this combined with the Chinese custom of floating dolls down the river. This gradually spread across Japan, and by the Edo Period, every household started to celebrate what came to be known as Girls’ Day.

Girls’ Day generally involves the displaying of hina dolls that will protect the girls of the house by absorbing any misfortune for that year. Customs also include playing games together and eating yummy foods which have come to be strongly associated with Girls’ Day.

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What is a Hina Doll Set?

Hina Dolls sit on a special stand in a home for Girls' Day, with the prince and princess dolls sitting at the top.
A hina doll set can be very expensive, so the key is to start small and let the collection grow with your daughter. Image Shutterstock

A hina doll set is an ornament of at least two dolls – the Prince and Princess (or the Emperor and Empress depending on the region) – which is displayed from mid-February until the end of Girls’ Day, or until March 4th.

When the custom first began in the Heian Period, the Japanese Hina dolls were made of paper or straw, but by the Edo Period, this had changed from paper to ceramic. Nowadays, while some families get theirs from 100 yen shops such as Daiso, others keep expensive sets and add to them as the years go by. 

Elaborate sets include the emperor, empress, attendants, and musicians, each on their own little layer or tier.

The highest amount of tiers is seven, all of which are placed on a red carpet, and each layer has a different meaning:

  • The Prince and Princess: These two are the main feature and, therefore, will always be included in a Hina Dolls set. In fact, without them, you can’t call it a Hina set.
  • San-nin Kanjo (three servants): These servants, or ‘clever maidens,’ are said to serve the prince and princess at the top. Each one carries a designated implement: a ladle, a platter, and a sake bottle.
  • Go-nin Bayashi (five boy musicians): These young musicians are said to play Noh (a traditional Japanese stagecraft) music for the prince and princess, each playing a different instrument.
  • Sui-jin (two guardians): The guardians are a young man and an old man, depicted as samurai in some editions or as government ministers in others.
  • Shi-cho (three other servants): These servants are said to do the chores, and are often carrying brushes, rakes, and dustpans. However, in certain locations, they hold equipment common to samurai, but they are still considered servants.
  • Other miscellaneous layers: These layers are added to make up to the lucky number seven, and may contain decorations such as mini drawers and other furniture-like objects. Recently, newer sets can include miniature versions of more common traditional Japanese items like Japanese instruments or outdoor tea ceremonies.

Girls’ Day Foods

Two simple cloth Hina Dolls sit on a stand surrounded by different Girls' Day snacks such as jelly beans, konpeito, and other candy.
Food for this holiday is all about colors, so konpeito (Japanese star candy) and jelly beans are perfect fits for the holiday’s color scheme. Image via Shutterstock

The traditional colors for Girls’ Day are green (Spring), pink (Summer), yellow (Fall) and white (Winter). These colors are symbolized in different types of foods. 


One of the Girls Day foods is called ‘arare’ and consists of teeny balls of puffed, colored rice, flavored either sweet (Kanto region) or savory (Kansai region). They are colored in the Hina Girls’ Day colors of white, pink, green, and yellow, and are often put inside the hina doll tiers as a sort of decoration.

Rice Cakes

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Japanese festival without special rice cakes to go with it. For Girls Day, there are a few that are associated with the festival. 

Hishi Mochi

One of the most common rice cakes of Girls’ Day are called ‘hishi mochi.’ Hishi mochi is a diamond-shaped, layed mochi, in the colors of pink, white, and green from top to bottom. In recent years there has been a trend for copying the hishi mochi design, using other ingredients to make desserts such as hishi-mochi cheesecake!

Sakura Mochi

Three pieces of sakura mochi, a common snack for Girls' day, sits in a leaf with dried sakura on top on a plate among cherry blossoms.
Sakura mochi can be quite gooey, so the leaf can double as a holder of sorts. Image via Shutterstock

Even though cherry blossom (sakura) season has not quite begun across the country by the time Girls’ Day starts, sakura mochi appear throughout Japan. Sakura mochi are a pink, slightly gooey mochi type, wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom leaf. The sweetness of the red bean paste inside contrasts well with the saltiness of the pickled cherry blossom leaf (although you don’t have to eat the leaf part).

Hanami Dango

One of the reasons that Girls’ Day remains so popular to this day may be because of its close proximity to cherry blossom season. With the weather getting warmer and plum blossoms coming out, it is a great excuse to have a picnic or ‘hanami’ with friends and plenty of food. 

Hanami Dango’ are cute, round rice cakes on a stick that are colored with the typical Girls’ Day colors of white, pink, and green. This type of mochi dango can be eaten plain, as they are, or with a sweet dipping sauce. Many people will head to a park with friends and eat them with other common Japanese picnic foods.

Ushio Jiru

Ushio Jiru or ‘clear clam soup’ is another typical Girls’ Day food. The clams used to make the soup are split open and kept as are in the serving bowl. The reason they are used to represent Girls’ Day is traditionally because they are two halves of the same shell. This is said to symbolize good relationships or a good marriage in the future.

The soup itself is made out of kombu dashi (a soupstock with a seaweed base) and only flavored with salt. The taste is very subtle and a good accompaniment for Girls’ Day sushi.


A chira sushi, a type of sushi served on Girls' Day, sits on a white plate with rice in layers of green, pink, and white, and lots of fish and vegetables arranged on top.
This may look like a delicious cake at first glance, but look more closely and you’ll see it’s actually a special type of sushi eaten on this holiday. Image via Shutterstock

Dolls Festival even has its own sushi, too. The sushi made is ‘Chira Sushi,’ which actually refers to ‘mixed sushi.’ The sushi itself doesn’t have a set formula but there are certain ingredients which are used. 

They are:

  • Shrimp: for longevity, or to live until at least your back is hunched (or curled, like a prawn!)
  • Lotus Root: for foresight.
  • Beans: for health.

While there is no set way to make the sushi, generally, Hina Dolls Festival sushi is made in a diamond shape and has layers from the top to bottom. Often, there is a yellow sliced omelette on top, then a shrimp, and green and pink colored rice on bottom.

And boys needn’t feel left out, as it’s not just Girls’ Day in which people celebrate the health of young children. Two months later, on May 5th each year, is Children’s Day, during which people celebrate the health and personalities of all children and hoist flying carp.

Let us know how you get on and what fun Girls’ Day sweets and snacks you have tried in the comments below.

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