On the 3rd of March, every year, Japanese families with daughters set up a display of dolls in their homes. The dolls are dressed in Heian style court costumes and are placed on a 5 or 7 tiered shelf, covered in red felt. On the top tier sits the Emperor and Empress who look down upon their attendants of court ladies and musicians, and possessions of miniature tea ceremony utensils, palanquins and even sets of lacquered dinner ware. The dolls symbolise protection of the young and guard against illness or bad spirits. The festival, in this stylised form, is about 400 years old and is to wish young girls health and happiness. Girls are usually given a set of dolls by their parents or grandparents on their first Hina Matsuri. Due to space restrictions in the modern Japanese home, smaller, less expensive sets are now popular.

The doll display is usually set up a week before the festival but must not be on display after March 3rd or it becomes unlucky and the daughter of the house may never marry!

As with all Japanese festivals, special food and drink is consumed. For Hina Matsuri, shirozake (white sake), hishimochi (pink and green diamond shaped rice cakes) and chirashizushi (sushi rice flavoured with seafood and mushrooms) are prepared to be eaten in front of the dolls.

Days before the festival I enquired at the sento (bathhouse) as to where we might see Hina Matsuri "in action" and not a museum display. "Oh, no" the Obaachan (grandmothers or older women) said, "there aren't many children living in this neighbourhood now" and the conversation turned to reminiscing about their own doll sets. "I had a beautiful set of lacquered dolls. They must have been very expensive but they were given to relatives many years ago," one of the Obaachan lamented.

So we decided to visit "Tanaka Ningyo" (Tanaka Doll), a famous and well established traditional doll shop in our neighbourhood.

The ground floor of the shop was full of Hina Matsuri dolls on display. While we waited for the saleswoman to finish serving a customer, we looked at the dolls and their price tags, starting at a mere 60,000 yen (600 US dollars) for just an Emperor and Empress and up to 5 million yen (50,000 US dollars) for a full set. We introduced ourselves and explained the purpose of our visit. She agreed to photographs but when I started asking questions about the shop and Hina Matsuri, I experienced what Kyoto people are famous for - lack of a clear answer. Anyway, the conversation went something like this,

"So, this is a famous and very old doll shop..."
"Thank you very much"
"...and how long has it been here?"
"Errrr...." Hands me a catalogue.
"Oh, since 1573?!"
"Do local people come here?"
"Mmm, yes, I think so..."
"Hina matsuri is a traditional Japanese festival. How is it fairing in modern times?"
"Yes, well, it's traditional isn't it"
"These days are people opting for the smaller size displays over the larger traditional arrangements?"
"Mmmm..well...it's difficult to say..."
"Which is the most popular style that you've sold this year?"
"Well...I couldn't say exactly"
"How are sales this year?"
"Sales? Well.....mmm, yes....."

[Change of tact]

"Are all the dolls made here?"
"Yes, mostly"
"Is there any special style of Kyoto doll?"
With a smile, "Yes, there is, but that display is upstairs and is being packed up now!"