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Beyond Tokyo FEBRUARY 2021

Katsuura Doll Festival in Katsuura, Chiba

40,000 dolls dressed in Imperial court robes? Yes, please!

🎎 Every year, the town of Katsuura puts on a Girls’ Day Doll Festival to end all doll festivals. Nearly 40,000 magnificently attired hina-sama suddenly appear all over town, in displays that are truly jaw-dropping.

Feast your eyes on this!

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri thousands of dolls on the steps of the Tomioka Shrine

Just for comparison, here’s a typical Girls’ Day set, displayed on the traditional red steps.

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri doll display
Ensembles like this are put out in Japanese homes in advance of every typical Girls’ Day (March 3), so families can wish for long life and other goodies for the daughters of the house.

Always dressed in the Heian style of the 10th Century (think Tale of Genji), the Girls’ Day imperial court typically includes the emperor and empress, three ladies in waiting, three “ministers” and five musicians, along with doll-sized household furniture that represented a sort of girl’s dowry wish list. Japanese daughters usually receive their first hina-sama dolls from their relatives at their New Year’s, collecting more each year until they have a full set. Few girls receive an entire set at once, because they are such works of art, the whole megillah can easily cost over $10,000.

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri empress doll
You can see why these might get pricey, just by checking out the 12-layer kimono worn by this empress doll.

But what happens when your daughter grows up and moves away, and her daughter wants her own dolls, not your old hand-me-downs? The tricky thing is, these aren’t just toys you can throw away or dump in the Goodwill bin. Like the shrine amulets you buy to protect you from traffic accidents or beg for good exam results, they are sacred objects, imbued with the power to grant wishes (and get angry if they’re left out past March 3rd, in which case they might spitefully delay a girl’s marriage!) They can only be disposed of by being cremated in a special ceremony for hina-sama at a Shinto shrine.

Which is a shame, right? Them being so gorgeous and expensive and made by National Living Treasures and all?

Until the town of Katsuura had an idea: why not display their citizens’ unwanted dolls all over town? Make it a sort of local festival? Everyone thought this was a GREAT idea.

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri many sets of dolls
In no time at all, townspeople had gratefully donated 7,000 dolls.

But it didn’t stop there…

Word got out.

And soon families from way beyond Katsuura began sending doll sets. People far and wide were so delighted to find a home for their unwanted hina-sama, a Sorceror’s Apprentice-like thing ensued, and the town soon found their collection had ballooned to nearly 40,000 (At this point, they had to rather firmly call a halt to further donations.)

But now they had so many dolls, they had to find more and bigger places to display them…

Enter the Tomioka Shrine
Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri thousands of dolls on the steps of the Tomioka Shrine
Which began to attract so many visitors from all over Japan, they started lighting it up at night too

But those Instagold shrine steps are only the tip of the iceberg. All over Katsuura, wherever you turn, there are inventively displayed dolls.

You’ll find a crowd of them in the high school gymnasium…

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri thousands of dolls in the gymnasium bleachers

In parking lots…

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri dolls on a private staircase

On private staircases…

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri thousands of dolls on the steps of a private staircase

Even the foyer of the convention hall is lined with a forest of cut bamboo display nooks…

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri thousands of dolls on bamboo display wall

And inside, valuable antique dolls dating back to the Mieji Era hold court…

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri Meiji era antique dolls

Sometimes in their own venerable shrines…

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri Meiji era antique dolls

Or palaces

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri Meiji era antique dolls

There’s even a life-sized doll display

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri life sized dolls
You can see how big these are by comparing them to the stairs leading to the second floor and the people behind the screen at the top!

Everybody oohs and aahs over the lavishly attired stars of the show (the emperor and empress on the top step) but my personal favorites are the “ministers,” because they’re always depicted drunk. How can you tell? One is always angry, one is always weepy, and one is always laughing uproariously!

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri dolls

One of the most delightful things about this Katsuura festival is that, in addition to the big official displays, you can find smaller ones tucked into every nook and cranny all over town. From this pretty storefront tableau…

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri doll display

…to little ones, like this.

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri doll display

There’s always a charming display of sets made by the local schoolchildren (this one is crafted from empty plastic Yakult bottles)

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri doll display made by children from plastic yakult bottles

And some local businesses riff cleverly on pop culture, like this Pokemon set

Katsuura Doll Festival hina matsuri doll display featuring Pokemon characters

And best of all? Walking around town is free! A few of the venues charge a couple hundred yen admission, but it’s still a bargain for spending an entire day wandering around and seeing such an amazing sight.

Dates of the Katsuura Doll Festival can be found each year online, but it usually runs from mid-February until just after March 3.

Logistical trivia: If you’re curious about the unexpected issues of displaying 40,000 sacred dolls, think about this: the dolls must be taken inside every night (and, of course, if it looks like rain!) and set up again EVERY MORNING. 🤯

Here’s where Katsuura is:

Map showing where Katsuura Japan is

Here’s how to get to Katsuura from Tokyo:

Train route from Tokyo to Katsuura

Once you get there, maps of the various venues are posted all over town. It’s not a big place, so if you’re reasonably mobile, you can walk everywhere.

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More Beyond Tokyo destinations are in the JAPANAGRAM ARCHIVE

If you think your friends might enjoy The Last Tea Bowl Thief, get together with a Book Zoom!

Fun get-together ideas and step-by-step how-tos here

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon

“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist

Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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