Saturday, January 5, 2013

Hina Matsuri

Hello, my long awaiting readers (though you may be few). After a terribly long absence, I am finally back, with a new blog post. First, I would like to apologize for the delay. I know that, personally, it drives me crazy when a favorite blogger or comic artist suddenly disappears and doesn’t post anything new for months or sometimes years. I never wanted to be that person, but in the end my personal life just became too overwhelming to maintain posts. Of course there was university, but there was also the stress of a new job, as well as my boyfriend’s hip surgery, which rendered him completely helpless for a long time. A few other incidental stresses worked together with these major ones to sap not only my motivation to write, but also, quite honestly, my happiness. Only recently have I overcome a bout of mild depression, and I am trying my best to keep up my spirits. I really think devoting myself again to this blog will help. Writing has always been a sweet escape from the stresses of daily life, but reminiscing about fun times abroad is also a nice reminder that I have a good life worth appreciating.

So without further ado, I would like to return you to the tales of my trip to Japan, to talk about one of my favorite Japanese cultural traits: matsuri, or festivals. Japan is really a country of festivals. There are so many, that it would be impossible to count. The most common kind of festival is the kind often seen in anime shows. These are local festivals that celebrate some deity or another, and usually include cordoned off streets filled with stalls selling everything from finger foods to masks and fans. There are also often carnival-style games, floats, and street performers. In a later post, I will describe my own experience with such a celebration.

 Some festivals are celebrated nation-wide, such as Obon, a festival for one’s ancestors, Tanabata, a wish-making festival, or kodomo no hi, a celebration of children. In some regions the dates and various traditions of these festivals vary, but they are all observed with at least a few similar customs. During Obon, family gets together to share in a feast and remember relatives, as well as visit family graves and place food before the stones, which are often pretty sculptures made of sugar. There is also usually a dance, which varies by region, to honor the dead. At the end, paper lanterns are floated down rivers to carry the spirits back to the realm of the dead. (

Tanabata is a festival which celebrates the meeting of two lover deities, Orihime and Hikoboshi, embodied in two constellations, which are, in the West, Vega and Altair, respectively ( These two lovers are only able to meet once a year because of the distance separating them in the sky. During this meeting, people write wishes to the gods on pieces of paper and then hang them from a strip of bamboo (

Kodomo no hi, or children’s day, is exactly what it sounds like: a day to celebrate children. The tradition is to raising carp-shaped flags called koi no bori, one for each child. The different colors and sizes designate age. Originally, this day was only for boys, and only the male children were celebrated, but it was changed in 1948 and was deemed to celebrate all children. However, the festival remains mostly geared towards boys (

Luckily, girls get their festival, as well. This festival, called hina matsuri, was the first festival I encountered in Japan. Hina matsuri translates into “doll festival.” The origins behind this festival stem from the belief that dolls contained real spirits, which could turn malignant if not respected ( To this day, many Japanese people carry the suspicion that dolls having feelings and must not be insulted.  However, the main purpose of the holiday is to display a specific set of dolls and admire their beauty. The dolls depict an emperor and empress, as well as their entourage, including ladies-in-waiting, guards, musicians, and even their luggage and pack animal. These dolls are set out in a specific order on a stepped platform covered in red cloth. A complete set is often very expensive, and is usually a family heirloom, passed on from mother to daughter. (If any of you have seen the original seasons of Pokemon, these dolls are the dolls that Misty and Jesse compete to win in a particular battle competition.)

AIU had a set of dolls displayed in a special tatami room. People were welcome to come and look at it, though at the time I was still new to the school and too timid to inspect the dolls closely. Fortunately, when I went to go look with a friend, some school officials and the lady who had generously lent AIU the dolls were preparing to pack them up (the festival was at an end). They invited me and my friend to help put them away, and allowed me to take a few pictures before they went back to sleep in their boxes.

I was most struck by the amazing attention to detail that went into the dolls. As you can see in the photos, the clothes are absolutely gorgeous, with tiny details that seem like whispers from a bygone age of craftsmanship. The tea-set is so detailed that the whisk for the matcha powder looks practically usable. I wasn’t sure what I expected the dolls to be made of (perhaps porcelain) but they were actually made of high quality plastic, which made them feel so light and delicate in my hands. The set even included two trees, as well as two cherry blossom-print lanterns which would turn on if plugged in. I felt so lucky to have the chance to handle the dolls and appreciate them up close, and I have since become determined to own a set myself someday. I will celebrate this beautiful matsuri with my future daughter.

(The Emperor in his regal kimono. I love the pattern on his kimono and also his hat.)

(The Empress with her delicately painted fan. This fan was only a bit bigger than a quarter, and yet not a line on that heron is misplaced.)

(One of the royal attendants. This one is in a sitting pose, cradling a small stand with two tea cups.)

(The royal tea set, complete with hot water in the center, a ladle on the right, and a tiny whisk on the left.)

I was delighted to have experienced this festival, as well as a few others, during my stay in Japan. If you are interested in catching a few festivals yourself, I recommend traveling to Japan during the summer months, when festival saturation is at its highest. It seems like you cannot go a single week without a local festival breaking out (often as local as individual neighborhoods), and many of the major, national ones occur in the summer, as well. Hina matsuri is in March, Kodomo no hi is in May, Tanabata is in July, and Obon is in August. Of course, there are many other festivals during every part of the year, but summertime is like one big celebration, when hard-working students and salary-men and women escape the pressures of responsibility to don a yukata and watch fireworks. 

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