Hina Dolls at Meguro Gajoen–all kinds of traditions at once

This time of year in Japan, displays of Hina dolls are ubiquitous. Historically the third day of the third month is Girl’s Day (while the fifth day of the fifth month–now the Children’s Day public holiday–was Boy’s Day). The traditional observation of Girl’s Day included displays of Hina dolls–dolls depicting a king, queen and courtiers dressed in Heian Period (794-1185) garb–in the home for about a month leading up to March 3, and that practice has continued.  Most girls received their doll sets from grandparents and took the dolls along as part of their dowry when they left home to marry.

These days, doll collections–either pairs or the entire court on a red flannel-covered stairstep dais–grace not only private homes but also many commercial establishments. Some are quite traditional, others reflect more modern tastes.

Vintage or antique dolls sets are often displayed in museums and galleries. One such collection can be seen at the Hundred Step Staircase, a preservation-listed suite of rooms at Meguro Gajoen, just a short walk from Tokyo’s Meguro Station. Meguro Gajoen annually hosts a display of Hina dolls; this year’s dolls are from Kyushu (possibly an effort to support the area, which has recently suffered a major earthquake and increased volcanic activity).

Unfortunately, photography is not permitted, so I can only describe the exhibition to you.

Most of the dolls displayed were made in the 19th century–even as long ago as 200 years. Many were originally made for wealthy households and have porcelain heads, rather than the more “ordinary” lacquered heads of molded flour paste.  In any event, like Xian’s terracotta warriors, no two are alike.

The multiple layers of kimono worn by the dolls are often quite faded with time, but their quality still shows through. It was interesting to note that the older “queen” dolls wore elaborate gold headdresses (crowns?) that were more Chinese than Japanese in their style. Dolls made after the middle of the 19th century had more traditional bouffant hairstyles and very small crowns. In other words the style had evolved and Japanized over the years.

Although most of Meguro Gajoen’s extensive complex of restaurants, wedding halls (catering to various religious traditions), other wedding support facilities, and private banquet rooms are in a modern structure built in 1988, the Hundred Step Staircase dates back to 1935. While the rest of the original complex was razed to make way for flood control facilities on the nearby Meguro River, the Hundred Step Staircase was preserved and often used like an art gallery.  It received its historical building designation from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 2009.

The preserved rooms off the Hundred Step Staircase are every bit as interesting as the dolls currently displayed in them, and are the perfect venue for such an historical collection of dolls. The decor of each room is distinctive and reflects the particular style and talents of the artist with principal responsibility for the room. Some rooms feature wood carvings on the primary pillars of the tokonoma. The pillars themselves are also often of exotic woods.

Most rooms are decorated in themes ranging from animals to seasons to fruits and vegetables. The paintings of the rooms are mostly on panels installed on the ceilings or transoms.  One of the most striking rooms, in my opinion, was Kiyokata-no-ma (the penultimate room on the way to the top), with its special woven wood panel ceiling in distinctive shapes. Very few dolls were displayed in this room, which instead housed the various accoutrements of a Hina doll display–cabinets, trunks, lunch boxes, dishes, musical instruments, weaponry, even palanquin and two-wheeled carts.  Each piece is delightful in its miniature detail.

When Meguro Gajoen was first built in the 1930s, the founder, Hosokawa Rikizo, set out to create a “first class restaurant” offering private dining rooms with exquisite decor such as most people could never afford to have in their own homes.  Some have referred to the elaborate decor as “Showa kitsch”, but bearing in mind the bleak economic times in which Hosokawa was creating this environment, perhaps he can be forgiven for going a bit over the top.  Hosokawa later expanded the facility to offer “all-in-one wedding service”, making it possible for the wedding party to be dressed, have portrait photos taken, hold the wedding ceremony and the reception all in one location.  While quite common these days, at the time, it was a ground-breaking concept.

So, when you’ve finished enjoying the doll display, take a bit of time to wander through the rest of modern Meguro Gajoen.  Along the central hall leading from the entrance to most of the facilities you will find a number of carved and brightly painted murals, like three dimensional ukeoi prints.  Most of these are vintage pieces saved from the rooms of the original Meguro Gajoen when it was destroyed.

Be sure to look up, as the ceilings also contain paintings reminiscent of the original building.

Although the garden and ponds that were part of the original site are long gone, there is an artificial waterfall feeding a small pond stocked with colorful carp, and a walkway through it for visitors to enjoy.  Tea rooms, in case you’re ready for a break, look out onto this area. Not far away is a traditional Japanese restaurant under a thatched roof.

While it’s not always possible to enter the wedding halls and banquet rooms on the upper floors, sometimes the staff will allow it if they are not in use and you ask nicely.  There are both Shinto and Christian facilities, each decorated appropriately.

The intricate lacquer and mother-of-pearl decorations of the banquet rooms have to be seen to be believed.  The art gracing the corridors and ceilings on each floor are also worth your time.

Whatever else you see in the building, be sure to stop in the toilets (especially on the first floor), which are also intricately decorated in the style of the original Meguro Gajoen.  (I’ll bet that’s one of the more bizarre pieces of sightseeing advice you’ve ever had!)

Although tradition dictates that Hina dolls on display in the family home get packed up and put away as soon as the March 3 festival is finished (the belief is that any delay in stowing the dolls could delay the marriage of the daughter of the household), the exhibition at Meguro Gajoen is open daily (10:00-17:00) through March 12, 2017.  Admission is JPY1,500.

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