Cultures around the world celebrate — and seek protection for — their children in myriad ways, from Doljanchi to Karnavedha to First Communion. And Japan is no exception: here we have Girls’ Day, also known as Hina Matsuri, and Children’s Day, which was formerly known as Boys’ Day.

These two spring holidays — held every year on March 3 and May 5, respectively — see colorful decorations set up in homes, along riverbanks, and in shopping districts. And like all traditional Japanese festivals, there are seasonal, auspicious foods to be enjoyed as well.

Note that only Children’s Day (May 5) is a public holiday, one of several that line up to create Golden Week.

Girls’ Day

March 3

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Girls’ Day has its roots in an older rite, the Peach Festival (Momo no sekku), which was first celebrated during the Heien era (794–1185). The Peach Festival was one of five annual events held according to important dates on the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, which was used in Japan at the time. It took place on the third day of the third month, which was translated into March 3 on the contemporary calendar. This is also around when peach blossoms typically bloom in Japan. Much like plum and cherry blossoms, these gorgeous pink or white flowers are a sign of spring; traditionally, they were also believed to ward off evil.

At some point, the Peach Festival transformed into an expression of families’ wishes for their girl children to grow up healthy and happy. And then doll’s got involved, first as simple paper dolls and then as painstakingly crafted ones. For this reason, the celebration is known today as Hina Matsuri, or Doll Festival.

How is Hina Matsuri celebrated?

Families display sets of dolls, called hina-ningyō, as a way to give thanks for the health of their girl children. The dolls, which represent the Heien Imperial Court and are dressed in elaborate courtly finery, are arranged on tiered platforms, with the Emperor and Empress dolls up top, followed by courtesans, musicians, ministers, and guards.

Emperor and empress dolls dressed in Heian era courtly attire on display for Girls' Day, also known as Hina Matsuri,
Fresh-cut sprigs of peach blossoms often accompany the displays. | Photo by Getty Images

Some families buy sets for their daughters (or granddaughters) when they’re born; others use sets that have been in the family for generations. These days many families skip the dolls, as small city apartments just don’t leave much room for storing the sets in their bulky, protective boxes. But businesses and community organizations often have hina doll displays, and these can be way larger, with more dolls and tiers, than those typically found in homes. Department stores are a good bet, anytime from mid-February or so until March 3.

Doll floating ceremonies

Another way to observe Hina Matsuri is through doll floating ceremonies, called hina-nagashi. This is linked to a historic, sometimes-held belief about dolls: that they could become vessels for ill omens or bad spirits. In hina-nagashi, paper dolls are floated down rivers and, ideally, anything potentially harmful goes along with them.

Hina-nagashi are not common these days, but you can still find some public ceremonies to witness, or even take part in. Tokyo’s historic Asakusa neighborhood usually hosts a doll floating ceremony, on or before Girls’ Day along the banks of the Sumida River.

What to eat on Girls’ Day

There are dishes, sweets, and snacks associated with Girls’ Day. Much of the symbolism lies in the colors: pink, for health; white, for longevity; and green — a pastel, spring green — for new life. Of course, these are also the colors of the season, of peach and plum blossoms, of snow and new leaves.

  • Hina-arare: Sweet, bite-sized rice crackers in pink, white, and green.
  • Hishi-mochi: A three-layer mochi cake, in pink (from gardenia), white (from water chestnut), and green (from mugwort).
  • Chirashi-zushi: This dish of seafood (often raw, but not always) and other ingredients “scattered” (chirashi) over a bed of rice can be found year-round, but a special version is prepared for Hina Matsuri, topped with shrimp, salmon roe, and crab (pink), lotus root (white), blanched snow peas (green), and sunny yellow slices of tamago.
  • Clear soup with clams: The clams, served in shells open but still joined, represent a happily married pair.
  • Shirozake: A sweet, unfiltered sake with low alcohol content (kids drink non-alcoholic amazake).
A hina matsuri table set with chirashi-zushi, hishi-mochi, and hina dolls
A Hina Matsuri table set with chirashi-zushi, hishi-mochi, and simple hina dolls. | Photo by Getty Images

Hina-arare and hishi-mochi can be found in depachika (the food halls in the basements of department stores), supermarkets, and probably even convenience stores. Families with girls would likely prepare chirashi-zushi and hamaguri no osuimono (clear soup with clams) at home, maybe for the extended family or a small group of close friends. But you might be able to find chirashi-zushi bento in department stores.

Some Japanese restaurants do Hina Matsuri-themed lunch specials that include elements of the above as well as other springtime dishes in shades of pink, white, and green.

Children’s Day (Kodomo-no-hi)

May 5

Like Girls’ Day, Children’s day has its roots in ancient customs and the old Chinese lunar calendar. Originally, the fifth day of the fifth month was the Iris Festival (Tango no sekku), a day for thatching one’s roof with irises (which were similarly believed to ward off evil). When the samurai came to power, the Iris Festival was transformed into a celebration of boys — perhaps because iris leaves resemble katana blades. It was during this time, that horseback archery demonstrations were added to the festivities. May 5 had a long run as Boys’ Day until 1948, when it was renamed Children’s Day (Kodomo no hi).

How is Children’s Day celebrated?

The Boys’ Day equivalent to hina dolls are musha-ningyō (warrior dolls), which some families with boys may display in their homes, often alongside miniature samurai armor and a helmet. However, the most iconic emblem of Children’s Day is koinobori — carp streamers. Families may string up koinobori outside their homes; many communities also put up displays of large, colorful koi streamers along riverbanks, usually from mid-April.

Koinobori are strung over a river in Tokushima, Japan
Koinobori flown over the Yoshino River in Oboke, Shikoku. | Photo by Getty Images

Koinobori

Traditionally, carp have symbolized courage, determination, and vigor — traits historically desirable in sons — because of their ability to swim upstream. Different color koinobori can represent different members of the family: black (father), red (mother), blue (oldest son; now oldest child), and additional colors for additional children.

Since Boys’ Day is now Children’s Day — and is also a national holiday — many communities host events for kids. Popular activities, aside from these organized events, include flying kites in the park or treating children to a day out at an amusement park. If you are a parent traveling in Japan with a young child, feel free to join the locals in these celebrations.

In Tokyo, you can see carp streamers hung from Tokyo Tower. Or head to Saitama to see one that is 100 meters-long, strung up as part of the Kazo Citizen’s Peace Festival.

Iris baths

Another tradition, one more associated with the old Iris Festival than anything to do with children, is shōbu-yu, a bath with boiled iris (shōbu) leaves and roots. This is said to promote health and avoid misfortune. It’s something you can do at home, of course, but some public bathhouses may offer shōbu-yu on May 5.

What to eat on Children’s Day

Two dishes are associated with Children’s Day, and both can typically be found at supermarkets, department store food halls, and convenience stores around the country (though kashiwa-mochi is heavily associated with the Kantō region).

  • Kashiwa-mochi: Red bean jam-stuffed rice cakes wrapped in kashiwa (oak) leaves.
  • Chimaki: Parcels of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves.

Both the oak leaves and the bamboo leaves have antiseptic properties, which would have allowed for the food to be carried over days and distances during military campaigns. Note that it is not customary to eat the leaves!

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change.

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