If you’ve been to Japan in February or March you might be wondering why there are bright red staircases full of dolls everywhere. If you’re there now and googling that very question…the answer is you’ve arrived in time to see the Doll Festival in Japan, aka Hinamatsuri, Doll Day or Japanese Girls Day on March 3rd, and if you know where to look, it’s THE most amazing sight
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My trip to Western Japan was hosted by the Japan National Tourism Organisation who paid for my flights and hotel and organised the itinerary. However, they have not had any input into what I write about, or what I say about it, all opinions and excitement are
I type this having spent a few hours at one of the most impressive doll festival displays at the old Ito Denemon House near Fukuoka on Japan’s Southernmost Kyūshū Island.
Thousands of dolls fill room after room of the old house: there are regal dolls, some hundreds of years old lining the corridors. Walk into one room and a scene of thousands of dolls spreads out in front of you – look closely and you’ll spot tiny kimono-clad dolls carrying umbrellas and warrior dolls riding tiny horses. There are little towns full of dolls with trees and rivers and houses. In fact, there are dolls as far as the eye can see.
And what makes the display even more impressive is they are all owned by one woman, Ms Senoshita Mamiko.
Her son now works at the house and told us that his mother travelled all over Japan to collect the dolls. For the doll’s festival, she shows them all over town. Funnily, he himself has a daughter but does not display any dolls in his house. ‘She can go anywhere in town to see her family dolls, he laughs. ‘People are always asking to buy the collection but we will never sell.’
How Did the Tradition of the Japanese Doll Festival Begin?
The tradition of displaying dolls for the doll festival in Japan harks back to the Heian period, about 1000 years ago when dolls with human features first became popular in the country.
It was actually an evolution of a cleansing ritual brought to Japan from China where people would throw paper dolls into the river hoping they would take ill-health and impurities with them. In time, people stopped throwing the dolls away and instead, used them a symbol of their hopes and prayers – in the case of the Japanese Girls Day dolls, high status and good marriage.
That’s why, while the appearance, size, shape and cost of dolls on display for the larger displays you see during the Hinamatsuri Doll Festival might vary, you will always see at least one display containing dolls representing the Emperor and Empress on their wedding day surrounded by their congregation.
These dolls are displayed on a set of steps, usually covered in red cloth, that, in the most ornate displays, can run to many storeys.
In every stepped display, though the Emperor and Empress are always at the top of and then different steps work their way down through their congregation of waiting ladies, musicians etc.
Why is Hinamatsuri Celebrated?
The point of Girls Day in Japan is to celebrate and wish for good health and good fortune for the girls in a family and every family who has a girl will own a set of Hina dolls, as they are known.
They are often made by hand (this page here shows how many parts there are in a Japanese Hina Doll – it’s quite incredible) and it’s not unusual for a family to spend thousands of yen on their Girl’s Day dolls, and that set to be then passed down through the generations.
While Hina Dolls used to be made in one style, the very formal, ornate look above, you can now buy different types of doll, and I even saw anime-style ones in a doll shop in Osaka (the name is only in Japanese so I can’t type it, but if you want to visit it, it’s on Nipponbashigashi, pretty much opposite Hotel Naniwa).
Families and companies will often also add their own individual touches to the lower levels of the traditional doll displays…check out the cats in this display at the Kaho Theatre in Iizuka, near Fukuoka, which is known for their Hinamatsuri With Cats.
When is the Doll Festival?
Girl’s Day in Japan is March 3rd, but you’ll start to see the dolls displayed from early February.
Don’t wait until March the 5th though, the dolls are taken down quickly after the festival. Just like Christmas decorations, it’s seen as bad luck to leave the dolls on display after Doll Day has passed.
Where to See the Doll Festival in Japan
While Hinamatsuri dolls are mostly put up in the family home, many hotels, shrines and businesses will have a public display in the lobby or somewhere else public, so keep your eyes peeled.
However, there are some areas where huge numbers of dolls are collected.
Sometimes, like those in the Ito Denemon House, they are from one family, but often the whole town comes together to create a community Hinamatsuri festival display. Here are some good ones to check out.
Iizuka, Fukuoka: This town a 40-50 minute train ride from Fukuoka in Kyushu is where you will find the both the Kaho Theatre and the Ito Denemon House and the amazing display of dolls from Mamiko san, but dolls are also displayed at 16 other sites in town. Over 10,000 dolls in all are on display.
Check the Welcome Kyushu Hina page for details of what’s on where.
Chofu Garden, Shimonoseki: This beautiful garden is worth a visit in its own right, but when I visited during the Doll Festival, it turned out they also fill one of the garden’s beautiful old wooden buildings with all sorts of dolls.
As well as the traditional human figures they had some really cute animal dolls in their display.
Getting to Chofu Garden takes just over an hour by train and bus from Hakata station in Fukuoka.
If you are staying in Fukuoka, check out this guide of cool things to do there once you finish this post.
Katsuura, Chiba. The Katsuura Big Doll Festival displays over 30,000 dolls in five different locations but the most amazing is the display at the Tomisaki shrine which displays the dolls on an old stone staircase. The sight over almost 2000 dolls on the staircase’s 60 steps is quite impressive.
Also don’t miss the display in the Citizen’s Hall which sees row after row of dolls on display. About 7000 of the dolls are from local people, the rest are loaned from families around the country. See more details here.
Katsuura is easy to reach from Tokyo. It takes about 90 minutes on the Wakashio Limited Express Line.
Tokyo: Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku has one of the biggest public Hinamatsuri doll festival displays in Tokyo with over 6500 dolls. Also, check out the Tokyo Mejuro Gajeon Hotel who display their dolls on a huge staircase.
Konosu, Saitama: If you’re happy to get on a train, the town of Konosu, about an hour’s train ride, northeast from Tokyo has a long history of doll making and so it’s not surprising they also offer one of the country’s best doll displays.
The highlight is the 31-storey pyramid of 1800 dolls, the highest doll pyramid in Japan, that stands in the Elmi Konosu Shopping Mall outside the JR station. All the dolls are on loan from locals and other families and around the country and, the pyramid is even earthquake-proof.
Another special touch of the Konosu pyramid is that it has added chicks – a symbol of the town – hence the yellow fluffy fella being waved above.
Dolls are also displayed at five other venues in Konosu. You’ll find a full list here (it’s in Japanese so you’ll need google translate).
Kyoto: The Kyoto National Museum often put their dolls on display but on March the 3rd, Doll Day in Japan itself, the Shimogama Jinga shrine in Northern Kyoto carries out a whole Hinumatsuri ceremony with people dressed in elaborate kimono and a ceremony called Nagashibina which sees people floating tiny paper dolls downstream replicating the origins of Hinamatsuri.
See more about the ceremony here – it could be a great thing to do if you’re travelling to Kyoto with kids, especially daughters.
Tomonoura, Hiroshima: The port town of Tomonoura in Hiroshima Prefecture, put on a display called Tomo Machinami Hiroshima where 100 houses in the town put their family’s dolls on display. Find details and maps here – the video above gives you an idea of what to expect.
To reach Tomonoura, you need to travel to Fukuyama station and then take a bus to Tomonoura. This takes 75 minutes from Hiroshima or a little under 2 hours from Osaka. If you get stuck when you reach the town, they do have a Tourist Infomation Office.
So, there you have it, where to celebrate the Dolls Festival in Japan. I’m sure there are other places that also have amazing displays so if you find any please let me know in the comments so other people can see the awesome Japanese Doll Festival too.
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