Hana matsuri

Hina Matsuri Dolls – Japanese Fine Art At Its Best

February 29, 2020

If you’ve been in Japan around the month of March, you have almost certainly seen the extraordinary decoration of the Hina Festival, locally called Hina Matsuri. You’d know it’s this time of year since you will see the beautiful Hina Dolls everywhere. These extraordinary dolls are undoubtedly one of Japan’s finest arts and are displayed in various locations.

By now you must be thinking: “has she just written a whole post about dolls?!”, so – yes, I have. These dolls are definitely something you’d want to learn about if you have any interest in Japanese arts and crafts.

hina matsuri

In this post, I will sail you through the fascinating world of Hina Dolls. We will get to know one of Kyoto’s oldest Hina Doll workshops, as well as their cultural significance and usage. So, let’s begin with a little bit of background…

Hina Matsuri

The Hina Matsuri is celebrated every year on the 3rd of March. It is one of the five seasonal festivals that were traditionally celebrated in Japan’s imperial court. In the Chinese calendar, the festivals were held on the most propitious dates. Now, after Japan has adopted the Gregorian calendar, the dates are: January  1st, March 3rd, May 5th , July 7th, and September 9th. Back before the current calendar was adopted, it was at the same time as the peach blossom. Therefore, it was also called “peach festival” (momo no sekku).

hina matsuri

Although the original festival was celebrated by drinking rice wine and writing poems, today it is celebrated differently. Now this colorful festival is known as Girls Day, but don’t worry!… There’s Boys Day too, on the 5th of May 😉. In terms of food, the tradition of the holiday is to eat hishi mochi (for the amazing cake I made inspired my hishi mochi click here!), which is a three-colored rice cake, as well as hina-arare, which are colorful rice crackers. It is also common to eat ichigo-daifuku, a strawberry covered with azuki red beans and mochi rice. Also, the traditional drink is amazake, a non-alcoholic fermented rice drink – which you must try!

As important as the food might be, especially to the author of this blog, Hina Matsuri is better known for something else.

An introduction to Hina dolls

The Hina Matsuri is ancient indeed, but the dolls which are so associated with it only started appearing in this festival in the Edo Period (1603-1868). At the beginning, there were only two dolls, a bride and a groom that represented the emperor and the empress. Later on, some other dolls were placed below the couple. First, the three court ladies were placed, and later the five musicians and other court figures and accessories. Today, a full-scale Hina Dolls set has seven layers.

However, it’s not very common to find the full set, since it requires a wide space and it’s fairly expensive. Overall, it is a festival celebrated in the family’s home (which is great in the light of the new Coronavirus), so seven layers of dolls in a Japanese house might just be too big.

hina dolls
hina dolls
Japanese hina doll

Hina Dolls today

It’s common to buy at least two Hina Dolls (the bride and groom) when a daughter is born and before her first Hina Matsuri. The first two dolls alone cost around 100,000 to 200,000 yen, so some families cannot afford it. Therefore, some dolls may be inherited from other female relatives.

Then, after spending this decent amount (or receiving the dolls), they are presented for about a month every year. For the remaining months– they are in storage. This is mainly to protect the dolls so they will stay in good condition for many more years to come.

When I began to have an interest in Hina Dolls, I thought I should ask a Japanese woman about her dolls. The first woman I met was, well, my academic supervisor. She did have Hina dolls, which her grandmother bought for her when she was born. After telling me this, she mentioned: “did you know that the dolls have a spirit?”

Me: “have a spirit?”

My supervisor: “Yes. They exist for many years, and they have a spirit. Therefore it’s important to treat them nicely”.

hina matsuri

In Japan, it is commonly believed that Hina Dolls have a spirit, and also supernatural powers. In other words, you better treat them well. If you’re kind to the doll, it will take away all your problems. However(!) if you treat it badly – for example –  if you don’t properly store it after the Hina Matsuri is over, it might result in the late marriage of a daughter.

broken hina doll
Hina doll which was not treated nicely…
second hand hina dolls
Hina Dolls in Toji temple’s market. You can find them in second-hand markets.
old hina dolls

So where do these supernatural dolls start their journey?

Let me introduce you to one of the most renowned Hina Doll workshops in Kyoto.

Ando’s Hina Dolls

There are many artisan workshops near Kyoto’s former imperial palace. Remember I wrote here about one of the incense workshops located there? The craftsmen originally settled there because some of them were working for the imperial family.

When the imperial family moved to Tokyo in the end of the 19th century, many craftsmen moved with them. This area is still known for its artisan workshops, so many new craftsmen decide to base their workplaces in nearby neighborhoods.

Ando’s family is one of the artisan families you can find there. Their specialty, you might have guessed already, is Hina Dolls. For around 110 years they have passed their knowledge and practices of how to make these magnificent dolls down through the generations. Ando’s dolls are very popular around Japan and you can find them in many shops. Besides this, Ando also made Hina Dolls for the late King Pumipon of Thailand, Tommy Lee Johns, Queen Mathilde of Belgium, and Princess Charlotte of Britain.

hina dolls factory
hina dolls factory

The doll parts are made in different workshops, all masters in their production processes. The division of labor ensures that each part of the doll will be completed by a master of the craft. There are special workshops for faces, hair, hands, and even for the dolls’ fans and swords. Ando’s work is to combine all the parts, and to sew the doll’s clothes. The dolls’ kimonos are made from the finest fabrics, also commonly used for kimono belts (obi). It’s very impressive, especially when you notice that the dolls are dressed as Heian Period courtiers, with 12 layer Kimonos.

When all the parts of the doll are in Ando’s workshop, it takes around 3-4 days and 4 or 5 people to assemble one doll.

Japanese craft factory
japanese craft factory

If you’re not planning on visiting a Japanese house but will be in Japan, you can see the Hina Dolls in hotel lobbies, shopping centers, or shop windows. Sometimes you won’t see the dolls themselves but a folded paper, or a puppet representing the Hina Dolls instead.

hina matsuri Japan
wooden hina dolls
fabruc hina dolls
hina matsuri doll

So if you’re in Kyoto around March…

Take a look around! Hina Dolls start to be placed around Japan from the middle of February. When in Kyoto you can visit Ando’s workshop if you want to see the real thing. If you’re lucky, you might also see a little bit of the making process.

What a special way to appreciate Japanese art!

Japanese sakura

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