Hinamatsuri: Japan’s Girls’ Day Explained

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Since the Heian Period (794-1195), every year on March 3rd is Girls’ Day, Dolls’ Festival, or ‘Hinamatsuri’ in Japanese. Families in Japan wish for the health and prosperity of their young girls (generally up to 10 years old).

On Hinamatsuri, families will often eat foods such as hina arare (colored Japanese rice crackers) and sakura mochi (rice cakes made with red beans and pickled cherry blossom leave) 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 part ways with all the misfortune from that year. 

Origins of Hinamatsuri

Japan’s Hinamatsuri originates from a Chinese doll festival in which people send dolls down a river to carry away girls’ bad luck and misfortune. In the past, it was also the ‘peach season festival’ or ‘momo no sekku.’

Celebrants then combined this with hina-asobi, which means ‘playing with dolls,’ a popular pastime among aristocratic children. Soon, this combined with the Chinese custom of floating dolls down the river. By the Edo Period, Hinamatsuri spread across Japan.

This holiday generally involves displaying 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 Do Hina Dolls Symbolize?

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). Families display these dolls from mid-February until the end of Hinamatsuri or until March 4th.

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

When the custom began in the Heian Period, people made their Hina dolls of paper or straw, but by the Edo Period, they started using ceramic. While some families get theirs from 100 yen shops such as Daiso, others keep expensive sets and add even more accessories as the girls get older. 

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

The Hinamatsuri Doll Tiers

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

  • The Prince and Princess: These two are the main feature in every Hina Doll set since they rule over everyone on the lower tiers.
  • San-nin Kanjo (three servants): These servants, or ‘clever maidens,’ are said to serve the prince and princess at the top. Each carries a designated implement: a spoon, 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 older 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 often carry brushes, rakes, and dustpans. However, in specific locations, they hold equipment common to samurai but are still considered servants.
  • Additional tiers: These are added to make up 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 musical instruments or outdoor tea ceremonies.

Hinamatsuri Foods

The traditional colors for Girls’ Day are green (spring), pink (summer), yellow (fall), and white (winter). Celebrants include these colors in all of the hinamatsuri dishes and other activities.

Two simple cloth Hina Dolls sit on a stand surrounded by different hinamatsuri 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 for the holiday’s color scheme. Image via Shutterstock

Arare

One of the Hinamatsuri foods is ‘arare‘ and consists of tiny balls of puffed, colored rice. They are either sweet (Kanto region) or savory (Kansai region). Their colors are white, pink, green, and yellow, and people use them with Hina dolls for decoration.

Hishi Mochi

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Japanese festival without special rice cakes to go with it. One of Hinamatsuri’s most common rice cakes is ‘hishi mochi.’

This mochi with layers of pink, white, and green colors from top to bottom. In recent years there has been a trend for copying the hishi mochi design. However, they use other ingredients to make desserts such as hishi mochi cheesecake!

Sakura Mochi

Even though cherry blossom (sakura) season doesn’t begin until April, sakura mochi is essential to Hinamatsuri. Sakura mochi is a pink, slightly gooey type wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom leaf. The red bean paste’s sweetness pairs well with the saltiness of the pickled cherry blossom leaves.

Three pieces of sakura mochi, a common snack for Hinamatsuri, sits in a leaf with dried sakura on top on a plate among cherry blossoms.
Sakura mochi can be pretty gooey, so the leaf doubles as a holder. Image via Shutterstock

Hanami Dango

One of the reasons that Girls’ Day remains so popular is its proximity to flowers blooming. With the plum blossoms coming out, it is a great excuse to enjoy some hanami dango

Hanami dango are cute, round rice cakes on a stick that feature 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 soup uses whole clams as its base and also for symbolism. They traditionally represent Girls’ Day because they are two halves of the same shell. It symbolizes good relationships or a good marriage in the future.

The soup consists of kombu dashi (a soup stock with a seaweed base) and only uses salt. The taste is subtle and a good accompaniment for Girls’ Day sushi.

Sushi

Dolls Festival even has sushi, specifically chirashizushi (mixed sushi). The sushi doesn’t have a set formula but does use specific ingredients. 

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

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.

Hinamatsuri sushi is in the shape of a diamond and has three layers. There’s usually a yellow sliced omelet on top, then some shrimp, and green and pink colored rice on the bottom.

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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