It was March 3 at Awashima Shrine, just off the coast in Wakayama Prefecture.
Hundreds of delicate female-shaped dolls, in typical Heian costume, were hoisted onto a row boat and pulled out at sea. Perhaps, even without understanding much of the proceedings, it was enough to feed the thoughts of poets and writers with its slightly melancholy twinge.
This yearly occurrence is called “Hina Nagashi,” which roughly translates as “Floating Princess.”
Many might be familiar with the tradition of families displaying the elegant dolls on red-carpeted steps in their homes to wish for the well-being of young girls in the family. It seems simple enough — bring the doll out during a certain period for good luck, then put it away again. In a way, it’s a bit similar to how Westerners treat Christmas decorations, for example.
The “Hina Nagashi” tradition has deeper roots still. Historically, it was believed that dolls had the power to control bad omens and spirits. Therefore, an ancient tradition was to take cutouts of paper dolls, and let them float down the river. Just like the river’s flow gushing away, the dolls would take away with them the bad omens and demons, leaving behind only the good health of the family.
This tradition has disappeared from many locations, but in some places the practice still endures. One such place is Awashima.
This year, more than 400 dolls were put on small rowboats decorated with flowers of peach tree and rapeseed blossoms, which were sent on their way down the river and off the coast.
Yet, this year the novel coronavirus also managed to impact the tradition — instead of shrine maidens lovingly positioning the dolls on the boats, they were hoisted on with a small truck.
For those worried about the environment, you will be relieved to know that sending the boats floating down the river to the sea is just a ritualistic practice. After the ceremony has finished, the boats are collected and brought back to the shrine, where the dolls are then ceremonially burned.
It seems striking that so many different traditions surround the practice of “Girl’s Day” on March 3. The “Hina Nagashi” is just one of them.
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Author: The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward