Written by Patricia MacLeod-Kishi
The Yachi Doll Festival - A Treasured Tradition in Northern Japan
Every year, Yachi, a neighborhood of Kahokucho in the Murayama district of Yamagata prefecture, holds a particularly intimate and fascinating Doll Festival at the beginning of April.
Japan has wonderful festivals to punctuate the seasons. The Hina Matsuri, or Doll Festival, is one that has continued since Heian times (794 - 1185). In Western Japan, March 3rd is the traditional date of the annual festival. However, winters in Northern Japan are colder and the snow lingers on the ground longer into the spring, so that the date of the Doll Festival in Tohoku is one month later, on April 3rd.
Hina Matsuri - A Festival Announcing Spring
People are glad to welcome the spring with a charming custom that honors girls by displaying decorative doll sets along with miniaturized furniture and goods. In displaying the dolls, families wish their daughters health, happiness and good fortune.
Red dominates as the color of the fabric that covers the large tiered display stands called hina-dan. These can have up to seven steps and, because the stands require a lot of space, the trend in many homes now is to display only the two main characters from the top tier.
The red creates a vivid backdrop to the muted colors and subdued tones of Heian period clothing while providing a lively mood for the freeze-action dolls with their musical instruments and foods.
The “prince” (oji) and “princess” (hime) are positioned on the top tier. Below these, on their respective steps, are court officials, samurai warriors, musicians, and lady attendants offering drinks. They are grouped according to their status.
The craftsmanship and artistry applied to creating faces and bodies for the highest quality doll sets produced in Kyoto and Edo meant that only the wealthy could afford the full set of fifteen dolls dressed in gorgeous Heian period kimono. Their posture, head tilt, makeup and facial expressions are delicately composed.
Mixing and matching materials from worn kimono to extend the useful life of a garment or to create something new is traditional and this practical and inventive sewing skill contributes to a lively contrast of color and mood. Sometimes, for comedic effect, purposely patched clothing reflects the reality of daily wear for itinerant musicians.
The miniature dolls’ clothing demonstrates exquisite needlework. The kimono, hair ornaments, various musical instruments and serving dishes have been well preserved since Edo times since the whole Hina matsuri set is carefully packed up and protected from dust and moisture immediately after the festival. According to folklore, if the Hina doll set is not promptly put away on April 4th, the daughter will not be able to attract a husband!
Sets of dolls handed down through the generations to girls born into the family are becoming much less common and therefore more special. The dolls are arranged on stands along with flowers, fruits, fish and various other foods.
Neighborhood children are invited to go from house to house to see the dolls, and they are often given mochi cakes, arare or sweets to take home. Traditionally the mochi is tri-colored hishimochi cut into diamond shapes. The colors are pink for plum blossoms, white for snow and green for new grass after the winter. If a meal is served, then chirashi-zushi and clam broth will be offered.
The Yachi Doll Festival - A Special Tradition
Every year, Yachi, a neighborhood of Kahokucho in the Murayama district of Yamagata prefecture, holds a particularly intimate and fascinating doll festival.
One portion of the street in Yachi is closed to traffic so that street vendors can set up stands and people can walk around easily while buying foods and drinks.
A few families in Yachi with remarkably fine doll sets open their homes to the general public to display the dolls they have inherited so we can enjoy seeing dolls in the original setting of family homes and kura (store houses) rather than in a museum. These homeowners are knowledgeable about the history of the area and can explain details about the dolls or other matters to visitors.
Kahokucho is famous for its benibana museum that preserves the history of this safflower growing region in Yamagata and the merchant families who became rich trading the red safflower dyes to Kyoto. Because of this trade associated with high fashion in the capital, courtly traditions became established in this remote Yamagata province where there were landlords, merchants and sake brewers wealthy enough to order dolls from Kyoto.
In addition to Hina dolls, visitors can see other types of cute dolls on display in Yachi homes during this festival.
Hina nagashi is a purification ritual with ancient Shinto origins. After the festival, dolls made of paper or straw are thrown into rivers to carry away sins and ill fortune, tossed either straight into the water or placed in boats. Now, in a gesture towards eco-consciousness, dolls may even be made out of fish food! Real dolls launched on toy boats are an annoyance to fishermen and little by little have fallen out of favor.
The Charm of Hina Dolls
The word “hina” actually translates as “chick” because the dolls are small and cute, like baby birds and they have been made out of many materials, including paper. Japan famously has a talent for miniaturization and “kawaii” cuteness so doll making traditions are by no means fading away, but adapting to new styles and materials.
A visit to a doll festival will make you smile and create a lasting memory!
Yachi Doll Festival
Days: every year on April 2nd - 3rd
Place: Yamagata prefecture, Kahokucho, Yachi
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