Running the gamut from pensive to boisterous, holidays in Japan are a microcosm of the country’s culture—both historically and contemporarily. In addition to rice harvest festivals held since ancient times, the Japanese celebrate five seasonal festivals known as sekku, which were once held in Imperial Court and adopted from China as early as the eighth century.
Each year, March 3rd marks Hinamatsuri, or momo-no-sekku (Girls’ Day or doll’s festival). Hinamatsuri is a day to celebrate the young girls of Japan, and to pray for their health and happiness. Traditionally, a newborn girl’s family buys her a set of dolls (or she might inherit a special set) to display each year for Hinamatsuri.
Family members decorate the small figurines dressing in ancient Japanese costumes on tiered platforms with red-carpet from the end of February through the holiday itself. The dolls are arranged hierarchically to represent the Imperial Court of the Heian period (A.D. 794 to 1185)—complete with the emperor, empress, attendants and even court musicians—and packed away as soon as the festival is over. This superstition goes back to the holiday’s Chinese origins, which say a family will have trouble marrying off their daughters if they don’t put away the dolls right after the holiday.
Like any holiday, food is a huge part of the celebration. Japanese girls often get to invite friends to their home for a special party featuring cuisine like chirashizushi (“scattered sushi”), sushi rice sweetened with sugar and topped with raw fish; and ushio-jiru, a clear soup often made with clams or other seafood, such as white fish, and seasoned with sake and salt. You might also find edamame mixed rice usually consisting of brown rice and soybeans, and inarizushi (rice-stuffed tofu pockets).
Of course, sweets are popular too. Diamond shaped rice cake, hishi-mochi, is often seen in pink (representing peach flowers), white (representing snow) and green (representing new growth). Sakura mochi and hina arare, a favorite among children, are also common during Hinamatsuri. Peach blossoms are the symbol of this holiday, and you often see the flowers in the cuisine as well.
Shunbun no hi, vernal equinox, happens on either March 20 or 21, depending on astronomical measurements. (It is on March 20 in 2018.) Although it’s not necessarily as flashy as the other spring festivals, it’s equally important in Japanese culture. When day and night are equal lengths, the Japanese honor nature, as well as the departed. Shunbun is traditionally bookended on each side by three days of Higan, the Buddhist celebration of “the other shore,” during which the Japanese honor family members who have passed on to the next stages of life.
During Higan, it is traditional to make an offering of rice dumplings, referred to as botamochi. Many urbanites return to their families in rural regions to help clean the homes and the gravestones of the ancestors. The living—whether devout Buddhists or not—freshen flowers around the burial sites and enjoy the sweet botamochi dumplings after memorial services.
This holiday also happens later in the year, centered on the autumn equinox. However, the name of the dumplings changes to ohagi rather than botamochi even though they are technically the same dumplings. In spring time, “botan”(peonies) bloom whereas “hagi”(Japanese bush clovers) bloom in the autumn. Thus, “botamochi” and “ohagi”.