With the arrival of March, the weather is slowly getting warmer as spring approaches. In the kyuureki, March is known as Yayoi (弥生) which is said to originate from the saying kikusaiyaohi zuki (木草弥や生ひ月) that means the month when the grass and trees are about to grow thickly.
The term Yayoi was believed to be derived from the word “yayohi” in this saying as a reflection of the season’s greenery ahead of spring. Other than this, March is also known by other names such as kagetsu (花月), kagetsu (嘉月) and hanamizuki (花見月), yumemitsuki (夢見月), sakurazuki (桜月) and boshun (暮春).
The signature traditional festival in March would have to be the Hina Matsuri (雛祭り) or Doll Festival which is when families pray for the healthy growth of girls. Up until the Edo era, Hina Matsuri was celebrated on the day of the peach festival, 3 March on the lunar calendar (around April in the western calendar).
It was only until the adaptation of the Gregorian calendar in the Meiji era that Hina Matsuri is celebrated on 3 March as it is today. However, in some areas of Japan especially the cold and snowy areas of the Tohoku and Hokuriku regions, they continue to follow the practice of celebrating based on the lunar calendar thus Hina Matsuri will be one month later on 3 April for them.
Generally, people display at least a pair of dolls (one male and one female) at home with peach flowers, offer hina arare (sweet rice crackers for Hina Matsuri) and hishimochi to pray for the girls’ good fortune and feast on stuff like white sake and sushi which usually comes with an auspicious meaning. In some public places, there are also elaborate doll displays during the festival.
There are various theories as to how Hina Matsuri came about but the origin of the festival is widely believed to be during the Heian era in Kyoto. Children of aristocratic families played with the dolls while commoners released paper versions of the dolls to send away back luck. By the Edo era, these two functions of the dolls were “combined” which then led to the custom of displaying the dolls on Hina Matsuri becoming a nationwide practice.
Owing to the fact that the dolls originated from the Heian era, the clothes worn by the dolls are from the same time period and became more elaborate as time went by. From the initial male and female noble dolls only, there are now dolls of the servants, bodyguards, officials etc which are placed below the main couple dolls to show the difference in their status.
In relation to the Hina Matsuri, the signature wagashi would have to be the Ohinagashi (お雛菓子). However, this term does not refer to a single wagashi as it is a collective term used to refer to the wagashi eaten during the festival. There are many variations depending on the manufacturer and locality but the similarity between them is that the items all have a special and auspicious meaning. For example, in the double-layer Ohinagashi set made by Kanshundo in Kyoto featured in the photo above, there is a nerikiri made to resemble a hina doll, peach-shaped nerikiri to symbolise the peach festival, the clam shell which represents a married couple (there are two shells to cover the clam and there can only be one suited for the other) in the hope that the girl will grow up to have a happy marriage.
Here is another type of ohinagashi which has wagashi replicas of various food items. Generally, the following items are available in most ohinagashi sets of this nature such as the tai (鯛) which is meant to represent めでたい (medetai) or something to be happy about, the mikan (ミカン) which is considered to represent good luck, takenoko (竹の子) or bamboo shoots to represent strong and healthy growth like a bamboo which grows upright and tough as well as the momo (桃), a peach, to symbolise the peach festival. Don’t they look so pretty and dainty?
If you happen to be in Japan during March and early April, do give the local ohinagashi a try as you admire the cherry blossoms and bask in the gentle spring breeze!