With the arrival of March, the changing of the seasons becomes more and more visceral. Harumeku meaning “becoming very Spring-like” is evidenced on new leaf budding for Willow trees along the Kamo River in Kyoto, or from grass putting forth new shoots in fields. Another very seasonal image is na no hana or the cruciferous Rapeseed blossom. Found commonly along river banks, its bright yellow flowers with luxuriant green leaves symbolize fresh new energy.
Na no hana ya/ Yodo mo Katsura mo/ wasure mizu
The impact of na-no-hana everywhere obscures the Yodo and Katsura rivers.
Another major seasonal observance this month is Hina Matsuri also called Girl’s Day. Celebrated each year in Japan on March 3rd for the happiness and good health of girls, it is also known as Momo-no-sekku or Peach Festival. It is one of the five sacred festivals originating in China and adopted by the Japanese in the Heian period (794-1185). This observance evolved into a ritual during the middle ages in which “pollution/impurity” kegare was transferred from a person’s body to a surrogate paper doll which was then thrown into a river or the sea to remove the defilements.
The custom of playing with lavishly dressed dolls emerged from this ritual and particularly featured depiction of the aristocratic court with dolls representing the Empress and the Emperor and their various attendants. Since the Edo period (100-1868), there has been a tradition of displaying these hina dolls at home and it still continues today. Traditionally, parents or grandparents purchased a set of hina dolls following the birth of a girl child. To display a full set of dolls is something of a status symbol given the cost and space required to display them and often sets are handed down from the older generation as family heirlooms. The arrangement is a replica of the Heian period court structure and requires an elaborate 4 tiered step dais covered with a red felt carpet. On the top tier are the two main dolls said to represent the Emperor and Empress and on successive tiers can be found attendants in various forms including: ladies in waiting, musicians and government ministers.
To bring this festival to life even more, I had the good fortune this year to spend the day with my very good friends Gary and Junko and their beautiful five year old daughter. It was a privilege to visit their home and see their display of newly acquired Kyo Bina dolls made by a traditional workshop in Kyoto decades ago. The Emperor doll holds a ritual baton and the Empress a fan. When Junko was setting up the display a few days ago she discovered that the Emperor’s ritual baton was indeed missing. After consulting a Doll shop in their traditional Kyoto neighborhood, they were invited to bring the Emperor doll directly into the shop to see if they could find a replacement that matched the vintage and size of the doll. Not surprisingly, there are many aspects to the “correct” setting up of the dolls for display. Junko of course took great care with each of the various steps only to find out from a local neighbor that how the Emperor and Empress dolls are positioned differs regionally. As Junko is an Edo-ko or Tokyo person, she immediately had the Emperor doll sitting to the right of the Empress as you look at the dolls. This is most definitely the atarimae “normal” way of seeing them and is common image on TV and on the packaging for the sweets found in supermarkets that are used as decorations. In a not so subtle nod to how things are done traditionally in the older aristocratic capital of Kyoto, of course the doll positions are reversed. Having realized her “faus pax”, Junko bowed deeply in apology to the Emperor vowing to get it right next year.
I love how the tradition trickles down to the 21st century and is reflected even in seasonal supermarket displays. For about a week, the color pink was featured heavily for decorations, candy and the ingredients in seasonal dishes that should be auspiciously eaten on March 3rd.
My favorite amongst these dishes which I could eat all year round is “Scattered Sushi” chirashizushi. It consists of vinegared sushi rice topped with a mixture of raw and cooked fish along with a melange of other ingredients including: shredded egg roll and pickled ginger. Traditionally this large variety of sushi toppings was supposed to symbolize that girls would eat well throughout their lives and never face starvation. I also like this dish as it is tasty, relatively easy to make and always makes for an impressive party dish when I bring it along to potluck meals. Luckily for me, it is popular throughout the year not just for Girl’s Day.
It’s really touching to think that even in 2021, this symbolic tradition is being handed down to the next generation. I felt honored this year to celebrate all the different facets of femininity with such a delightful girl as Gary and Junko’s daughter.