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Sunday, March 03, 2013

Japan: Hina Matsuri

March 3 in Japan is know as Hina Matsuri (雛祭り), either the Japanese Doll Festival, or more commonly, Girls's Day. It is a celebration for families with daughters, in hoping they will grow up to be prosperous and happy.

Small ornamental dolls, called hina-ningyou, are displayed on a seven-tier platform that is covered in red carpet. The dolls represent members of the Imperial court of the Heian Period (794-1185 A.D.), which is when the festival started. The top tier has the dolls of the Emperor and Empress. Tier two holds the three court ladies. Tier three has five male musicians and their instruments. The fourth tier has two ministers, one a young man and the second an old man. Tier five holds either three court helpers or three samurai protectors. Tiers six and seven often hold various items like furniture, carriages, and other items of court life.

Such sets can often be very expensive, so not every household has a seven-teir platform. If you can afford only one level, it is the top, with the Emperor and Empress. The displays are set up in February and taken down March 4, any later than that and the result will be a late marriage for the daughter.

There are not many activities associated with this day. One, however, called nagashibina, is sending straw hina dolls out to sea on a boat; the dolls are thought to be taking bad spirits and troubles away from the family. This custom is not practiced much today; the dolls used to be sent down rivers and were often caught in fishermens's nets. The Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto still does this, but sets the boats and dolls out onto the sea. When the onlookers have left after the festival, the people of the shrine gather up the boats from the water and burn them. 

There are several foods associated with the holiday: shirozake, a sake made from fermented rice. Colored, bite-sized crackers flavored with sugar or soy sauce are called hina-arare and are easily available in grocery stores, often in brightly colored pink packaging especially designed for the holiday. And hishimochi, a diamond-shaped colored rice cake. Chirashizushi, which is sushi rice flavored with sugar, vinegar, and topped with raw fish and other ingredients) is often eaten. A salty soup called ushiojiru containing clams still in the shell is also served. Clam shells in food are the symbol of a united and peaceful couple, because a pair of clam shells fits perfectly, and no pair but the original pair of shells can do so.

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