Town Overrun by Dolls for Annual Festival

By: The Associated Press
By: The Associated Press

A small town in Japan's Chiba Prefecture is being overrun by some twenty three thousand small, intricate dolls as part of an annual festival.

During the Hina Doll festival they can be found popping up on display, and outside local shops.

It's an amazing sight - a sea of red, peppered with the delicate painted faces of thousands of dolls.

Estimates vary, but here in Katsuura organisers say around 23,000 of these Hina dolls are on display.

They're set to attract between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors during the Hina Doll Festival's 10 to 15 day period.

That's no small feat for a town of just 20,000 people.

Luckily for the locals here they've been helped by another Japanese location which shares the same name.

Katsuura in the Tokushima Prefecture began collecting unused dolls from all over Japan years ago - using them to commemorate the Hina Doll Festival.

For the last fourteen years, city officials and members of the local community there worked together during the Hina Festival period to put on display of as many dolls as possible.

Now, Katsuura in the Tokushima Prefecture has helped by donating dolls to this town's project.

With that donation, displays now line the streets, while temples and shrines lend their spaces to create striking displays.

Traditionally, most Hina doll displays are arranged in rows of just 5 or 7 steps, but in Katsuura displays like this are much larger.

Here at Tomisaki Shrine, 1,300 dolls are covering the 60 steps which lead right to the top.

Each morning, these dolls are carefully laid out around 8am by local volunteers, then collected again at around 7pm.

Tomisaki Shrine curator, Mr.Kobayashi, explains the tradition behind the Doll Festival - or Hina Matsuri as it's known in Japan.

"The Hina Matsuri has always been a festival to celebrate and bring happiness to women," he says.

"It began back in the Heian period and it was always held on March 3rd. Back in the days people would get in the river with dolls they had made of straw. The dolls symbolised the people who made them and were said to hold any negativity or bad karma that person might have had. "Then the dolls were floated on the river with the hope they'd take with them any bad luck."

Of course, over time playing with dolls became a popular pastime among the upper-classes.

Because of this, the dolls became more elaborate and were no longer floated down rivers but rather put on display.

While the symbolism of the dolls as a purifying force still holds today, these dolls are kept each year then reused.

Kobayashi explains that most of the dolls on display here were most likely abandoned by their previous owners.

"Usually when a baby girl is born, parents and grandparents buy Hina dolls for their daughter or grand daughter," he says.

"When the child is small these dolls are put on display every year but as the girl grows older people stop doing it and the dolls that the family had end up in closets or storage rooms. Fourteen years ago the town of Katsuura in Tokushima Prefecture began collecting all these unused dolls from all over Japan and put them on display as a way of commemorating them."

Kobayashi says his Tomisaki Shrine display may well be the biggest in the country.

"The dolls are displayed here on 60 steps," he says. "Usually Hina dolls are displayed on 5 or 7 steps, so in that sense, considering the height of these steps, this is the largest display in Japan."

Hayashi Hiromo is a housewife visiting from Tokyo, she came because of her daughter:

"We heard great things about the Katsuura Hina Doll Festival and now since we have a 7-month-old daughter, we decided to come here today," she says.

Throughout Katsuura, there are doll displays outside shops and on street corners.

Mitsuko Yashiro is Chairwoman of the Katsuura Society: "We have Hina Doll displays throughout the city to encourage people to visit the whole town. "There are also another couple of places where the dolls are displayed on stone steps."

Yashiro says it would have been impossible without the help of local shopkeepers.

"The shopkeepers in this area are helping us," she says.

"By 8 o'clock in the morning all the dolls are on display and at 7 o'clock in the evening they are taken all indoors. This happens everyday."

Nine kilometres from Katsuura's town centre lies this old elementary school which is in disuse.

Now, it's been turned into one of the largest venues for the town's Hina doll displays.

Despite its distance from the town centre, the school is managing to attract between 1,000 to 2,000 visitors a day thanks to coach tours which visit the site.

The school also boasts this display of the largest Hina dolls in Japan.

These were specially commissioned by Katsuura city in order to attract visitors.

This year's record snowfall in Tokyo and lingering low temperatures has meant that tourist numbers are lower compared with past years, but city officials are confident numbers will return to normal next year.

By the end of 3 March, a massive operation will get underway to put all the dolls back into storage.

Tradition dictates that if the displays continue after that day it won't bode well for a woman's marriage prospects.

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