In my recent post about jubako, I mentioned that there was quite a story to tell about the soft cloth dolls displayed next to the porcelain in the photo above. As the second anniversary of the Great Japan Earthquake approaches and this Sunday, March 3 is Hinamatsuri, Doll’s Festival or Girl’s Day, I think now is the perfect moment to tell it.

Hinamatsuri is a festival that celebrates the healthy and happy growth of girls. Families with daughters everywhere set up very large traditional displays, with the hina-ningyo (dolls) placed along a red felt covered tiered stand with the Emperor and Empress at the top and the other dolls placed progressively lower based on their hierarchy. The dolls wear costumes of the Imperial Court during the Heian period (794-1192). Realistic furniture, lanterns and toy food complete the display and golden byobu (screens) provide a backdrop just like the real Imperial throne of the ancient court.


Charming miniature two doll displays are also very common as not everyone has room for a full display. The small peach blossoms are always included as it can also be referred to as Momo no Sekku, or Peach Festival, based on its seasonal calendar date.


These huge displays are very expensive to purchase and I am always amazed when I see families buying them new as I come across them at shrine sales all the time. I have to keep myself from buying them as they are so adorable. A little tip – they are great candidates for Western style repurposing as they make really unusual doll house furniture – great gifts for friends back home.

hinamatsuri furniture at shrine sale

Last year around this time – actually a bit later in March – my daughters and I, along with some friends, traveled up to Tohoku in Northern Japan to volunteer with a great grassroots organization called It’s Not Just Mud. Headquartered in a few partially destroyed houses, with little electricity and no heat, it was quite an experience for us as we had never suffered such a level of discomfort before. Just realizing that people had been living like this for over a year was an incredible eye opener.

its not just mud P cold

INJM makes it very easy to come and volunteer and they run a number of service projects that range from heavy labor (rebuilding playgrounds) to lighter but no less important social work.  We were lucky to be involved in the launching of their ‘Tsuna Cafe,’ in which informal tea parties were organized in the communal space of the “temporary” housing complexes (which look more semi-permanent by the day). The parties are a chance for residents to communicate with each other and meet volunteers who bring cheer and friendship.  One of the post-tragedies of the earthquake and tsunami is that village and neighborhood links were lost as residents were assigned to housing units on an ad-hoc basis. No attempts were made to keep communities together and the majority of those unable to rebuild or move elsewhere are quite elderly.

tsuna cafe photos

As this was one of the first times the Tsuna Cafe was being held, the kids went around to all the units and rang door bells and distributed flyers announcing the party. My younger daughter, who was 8 at the time, rang one bell, but as no one was home, she began to walk away. A woman opened the window and beckoned for her to come over. She handed her the flyer and the woman gave her a bag of small bean paste filled donuts and told her that she had very beautiful eyebrows – which happens to be true. She thought no more about it.

We assembled for the tea party, putting out snacks and getting ready to use our best Japanese. My elder daughter had made many friendship bracelets in advance, expecting the children to want them. Ironically, many of the older women were clamoring for them!

friendship bracelets at the Tsuna Cafe

After a while, an elderly woman came in carrying a paper bag and approached my younger daughter. It was the same woman who had complimented her eyebrows! She opened the bag and took out what appeared to be folded cloth. Her Japanese was so colloquial that we couldn’t begin to understand her so one of the very fluent volunteers came to help translate.

hinamatsuri in tohoku

Basically, she told us how after the war, when everything was destroyed and she had nothing, an American soldier gave her an American doll and that changed everything in her life because she had something to play with and love. She never forgot this moment of kindness and sewed these small fabric Hinamatsuri dolls many, many years ago, with a plan in mind to give the Japanese dolls in turn to an American child. She had been waiting and waiting for the right child to come along. As she presented them to my daughter – we were all crying by now – my sweet little one said “Mommy, it’s a miracle!”


Somehow, in all the excitement and bustle we never got her name. But my daughter will have those dolls and that memory forever.

We are hoping to go up again this spring and perhaps we can find the doll lady. Please remember that the work here in Northern Japan is nowhere near done, even though it has faded from the news. And for a small organization like It’s Just Not Mud, every donation helps.  For more information on volunteering, please click here. For more information on making a donation, please click here.

Related Posts:
The Porcelain is Alright (Kids Too)…My Tale of the Big Japan Earthquake
Hands On Tokyo…A Taste for Volunteering 2012