Murakami City's Unique Doll Festival 村上市のひな祭り
One of Japan's most popular festivals for children is the Doll's Festival. Hina Matsuri, as it is called in Japanese, is celebrated in every town and city throughout Japan, and in most homes, but no place celebrates this festival with as much panache and openness to strangers as Murakami city in Niigata Prefecture.
In this town, the children's festival is for both adults and children. I fortuitously passed by Murakami Station at the high point of the festival.
Banners that were flapping in the wind and announcing the festival caught my eye. Murakami Station is a tiny train station in a small town in an out-of-the-way location of Japan, so a crowd of people in front was an unusual occurrence, rare enough to pique my interest and bring me into the center of the station, where I saw and heard an excited gathering of locals and a few tourists.
A young boy and a young girl, both about eight years of age were wearing resplendent colorful kimonos from the Edo period. They were dressed to resemble emperor and empress dolls, the two top dolls in a traditional collection of Japanese dolls that many parents display in their homes on the day of the festival.
The character mascots of Niigata city and Murakami city were also having their photographs taken. Both of these mascots are based on living creatures that are intricately connected with the culture of Niigata Prefecture.
Murakami's character is named Sakerin. Sake is how the Japanese word for salmon is spelled in English. Salmon has been caught in nearby rivers for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
The people of Murakami love eating salmon. Murakami city tourist brochures advertise that Murakami has over one hundred different recipes for cooking salmon. Salted salmon hanging from the eaves of homes and shops in Murakami to dry in the strong winds is a common sight.
Sakerin looks like a fat stuffed boy with a large head, a wide open smile, and bulging eyes. A smiling salmon lies on top of its blue head of hair. The blue hair is curly, perhaps to imitate waves in the nearby rivers or sea. Sakerin attracted hordes of young children who couldn't stop hugging it.
On the other hand, Niigata city's mascot, called Tokiki, couldn't attract children as well as Sakerin did. The character Tokiki is based on the Japanese crested ibis, called Toki in Japanese, which is now an extinct species.
Lacking a smiling mouth, Tokiki appears serious and glum, which is actually quite fitting considering that it became extinct in Japan due to habitat destruction and excessive pesticide usage (But that is another story for a more serious article).
A crowd of people in a festive mood was gathered at one end of the boarding platform where a local high school brass band performed Japanese pop music while people chatted and took more pictures. Toddlers danced and their parents swayed to the lively music.
A line of kimono-clad local ladies and city official officials held a banner urging train passengers to return to Murakami. Some of the ladies are special tour guides called Murakami Machi Musume, which roughly translates as "city daughters." They always wear kimonos while guiding and explaining local customs.
Every now and then, there was the sudden whistle from the coal-black engine of an old, classic steam train and the whoosh of plums of gray steam being discharged through the chimney.
Every year for this joyous occasion, an old Mitsubishi C57 180 steam train is brought to the station. Some lucky visitors, mostly children, are allowed to enter the cab while the fireman shovels coal from the coal box into the furnace.
Despite the black steamy exhaust floating in the air, about a hundred people stood waiting for the train to depart. Almost everyone nearby whooped with excitement when the train, named the Banetsu Monogatari, departed with numerous loud whistles and great clouds of steam puffing upwards. Passengers on board the Banetsu Monogatari were in for a rail tour of the Niigata coastline. The train pulling away signaled the end of the festival.
It was now time to start a distinctive tour of homes and shops housing antique doll collections. The Machiya Doll Tour, from March 1 to April 3, is an annual event that might only exist in Murakami. The owners of seventy homes or shops hold doll exhibitions, welcoming all visitors to view the dolls, as well as the old buildings.
Many buildings that were constructed hundreds of years ago, during the Edo period, are still standing. The city distributes free maps to visitors, and welcome messages are placed in front of each building open for public viewing.
Many of the homes and shops are essentially doll museums that are curated by family members who have actually used the dolls or who have inherited them from parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and relatives even further back in time. In Murakami, the Doll Festival is an event which connects contemporary Japan with its artistic past.
In the picture above, the lady is standing next to a display of dolls and one kimono that were used by her ancestors. The photograph in the center near the bottom shows her grandmother. Near the photograph is a collection of her grandmother's hair pins and combs.
What makes this tour so distinctive is the obvious pride that the "curators" hold in their exhibitions. Their desire to share their treasures with others encourages visitors to ask questions and to feel comfortable while walking through the shops and homes of others.
Because of the age and fragility of many of the dolls and other items, most of the locals do not allow visitors to take flash photographs. The dolls were made from a variety of items. Hundreds of years ago, before plastic, dolls were made from wood, clay, and real human hair.
Related Murakami Resources
Learn more about Murakami city; read about ashiyu, small hot baths for feet, in Murakami.
The author of this article blogs about Japanese hot springs at hotspringaddict.blogspot.jp.