Monday, March 10, 2008

Hina Matsuri (Dolls Festival)

The Japanese have a lot of holidays. I think ten months out of the year have holidays actually. This is great since I am guaranteed at least one three day weekend every month! The fact is that this amount of festivity shows the depth of culture and tradition here. These holidays are not counting your typical western holidays that are also celebrated here (to a certain extent) such as Christmas, Halloween, and Valentines Day. The last being celebrated backasswards with the women giving the men chocolates. And I mean all the men! They even have to give their male bosses chocolates! But don't worry ladies this is countered with White Day held in March where the men return the giving with candy and such.

à la the title this post isn't about White Day but the Hina Matsuri. Hina can be directly translated to Doll with Matsuri meaning Festival. The event is traced back to the Heian Period (794-1185 CE) and is celebrated on the third day of the third month of the year. Traditionally the dolls were believed to hold bad spirits and at the end of the festival they would be placed on small boats made of grass and floated down a stream. This traditional practice known as hina-nagashi doesn't seem to be as popular lately possibly due to the sheer number of dolls that would be floating down every stream and canal in Japan.

Nowadays, the dolls are placed upon a typically seven-tiered stand with the Emperor and Empress at the top. Here is a picture I took of one at a kindergarten where I was invited to celebrate the festival.


There seems to be many different traditional foods eaten during the festival. The kindergarten served macha with sweet candies. The principal at the school told me that you first eat the sweet candies then drink the macha (a very bitter green tea). The two juxtaposing tastes make for a very good blend. In other parts of Japan where I have celebrated this festival I was served amazake (a very thick low-alcohol version of sake) and small soy-sauce flavored crackers called arare. This combination gave the same sort of blend of flavors just with the food being bitter and the drink being sweet.

Here are some more pictures at the kindergarten.

The kids liked to show me their green tongues after drinking the macha.

I have heard that the Hina Matsuri is traditionally known as Girls' Day with Kodomo no hi, which is celebrated in May, typically celebrated as Boys' Day. When May comes around I will try to snap some pictures of the carp shaped flags that pop up everywhere and give a little explanation of the origins of the holiday. (I have heard that there is some dispute about why Boys' Day is considered a National Holiday, i.e. they get a day off, while Girls' Day isn't. Meh, whatcha gonna do, it's Japan!)

Monday, March 3, 2008


Went to Hakodate this past weekend with everyone from my office.

Every month we pay about $20 out of our paycheck to contribute to the end of the year party and the new year trip. This year I guess there were some scheduling conflicts so the new year trip didn't happen till March. It was worth the wait though!

We took the train north to Hokkaido through the longest underground tunnel in the world. The 33 mile long Seikan Tunnel connects Hokkaido to Honshu and contains the first two undersea train stations. I guess the Honshu side station was demolished a few years ago in preparation for the new bullet train line that will connect Hokkaido to the rest of Japan's high speed train network.

After arriving in Hakodate the first order of business was ramen! These guys are my kind of travel mates.

We then spent a few hours trekking around Hakodate's port town. Being the first port to open to western trade routes there are many western style warehouses and historical hot spots. It is essentially a tourist trap now with tons of little shops selling everything from bongs (I'm not joking!) to giant stuffed Elmos.

Bloodthirsty Elmo of Death!

After the souvenir shops we headed down to the Kitajima Saburo Museum. Sabu-chan is one of the most renowned enka (kind of a folk opera?) singers in Japan and was born in Hakodate.

Sea-chan and Sabu-chan Duet!

Oh, better include some pictures of other people or somebody might mistake me for being a narcissist.

David and I hangin' with our main man Saburo.

We also toured the religious district where you can find churches of almost every religion. In our short walk we passed a Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and a Buddhist Temple all within the same block. We took the tram, yep a tram, to our Japanese style hotel. Complete with tatami mat rooms, outside bath, and rigid eating schedule.

The following day we spent a few hours shopping for souvenirs. I spent way to much but came home with chocolate covered potato chips, happy (gengki) sausages, and some chocolate liquor.

We took the ferry back home instead of the train. Amazingly it is just as fast and I think a little cheaper. The new high speed ferry is very comfortable complete with a snack shop and lounge couches.

That's it for now. I will update again in a few days with some pictures of the Hina Matsuri. An annual Dolls Festival with what seems to be a very deep traditional background.

Hakodate 08