Picnics and dolls-- what's not to love about this time of year? In Japan, the Third Month is traditionally known as Yayoi. And, while there are various explanations for the origins of each of the traditional names month names; for the third month, it is pretty unanimously agreed upon that yayoi means, "at last!" いよいよ!!
Yayoi: "At last, the grasses and trees are beginning to grow!" 木草弥生月
Of course, everything got messed up with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, so in Japan-- unlike in China-- all the events are off by a month. But, anyway, it's not that hard to imagine yourself on a picnic, eating princess cake under a big blossoming peach tree, right?
March 3rd (by the Gregorian Calendar) is Girl's Day--my favorite holiday of all. And in addition to dolls put out in people's homes, in Tochigi, little girls will go out dressed up in kimono and float paper dolls in paper boats down the river. Nagashi-bina (floating away dolls here and here)
In ancient China, any date with a double-number, such as the Third day of the Third month (3/3), was considered to be highly auspicious. All the "double" days are marked in China as days of festivies and celebration. In Japan, for some reason, this custom was only taken on the odd numbered months (except Nov), so we have Jan 1 (1/1 new year); March 3 (3/3 Girls Day); May 5 (5/5 Boys Day); July 7 (7/7 Star Festival); and Sept 9 (9/9 Chrysanthemum Festival).
With the notable exception of the equinox holidays-- there are very few holidays in Japan that follow the ancient lunar-solar calendar-- since Japan wholeheartedly adopted the Western Gregorian calendar during the Meiji period. Even New Year is now according to the Gregorian calendar in Japan. However, according to the ancient Chinese solar-lunar calendar, March 3 actually should fall sometime in early April-- which is when the peach blossoms actually blossom (nowadays flower companies grow special peach trees which blossom a full month early in March to coincide with the holiday). Early April, when the holiday originally fell, is a time when the seasons change (from cold days to warmer days). Seasonal transition times are known as kisetsu no kawari me (or "seasonal turnings of the year") and there were special days, known as sechi nichi (節日) in ancient Japan, to mark these seasonal transitions. At Court and among the aristocracy special banquets (with special nourishing foods to guard against sickness) and rituals (to guard against evil) were held as ancient people believed that the body was vulnerable to sickness and bad luck during these periods.
Like almost everything of the Heian Court, the customs surrounding the Third Day of the Third Month had their roots in China; actually, in one of China's most important holidays, the Qing Ming Festival (清明節) or the Clear and Bright Festival. Occurring in China following the lunisolar calendar, the Qing Ming Festival falls sometime in early April and marks one of the 24 solar terms (節気) that divide the ancient calendar. Qingming is the 5th solar term and marks the time when the Sun reaches the celestial longitude of 15 degrees until 30 degrees.
The Chinese Festival is a day of purification when Chinese people travel back to their hometowns to sweep the tombs of their ancestors and celebrate the return of spring-- very much like Japanese O-bon. There is also a custom of eating outdoors to celebrate spring and some people also see the Japanese cherry blossom-viewing custom having its roots in Qing Ming as well. I think it would be safe to say that many of the Japanese customs of Spring have their origins in Qing Ming, and in China it continues down to today to be a day of family communion (between the living and the dead), picnics (celebrating spring) and purification. Ideally, one picnics on top of a hill and purified oneself in a river (to wash away in bad deeds or bad luck).
The gathering-- you won't be surprised to hear-- also took place on March 3. And it was this event that was probably the real start of the doll festival in Japan.
Even during his lifetime he was considered to be God's gift to calligraphy--certainly with Orchid Pavilion the legend of Wang Xizhi would forever after be firmly established. The year was 352 and Master Wang invited 42 literary figures of the day (his friends) to gather along a gently flowing stream and played what came to become the ultimate literati drinking game. Small cups made out of lotus leaves filled with wine were floated downstream, and the scholars, sitting spread out along the banks of the stream, were to compose poems on a set theme. If the floating cup of wine reached a scholar before he was able to complete his poem, then his task was to down the cup of wine. By the end of the day, the scholars had composed 37 poems, and Wang Xizhi, in a burst of energy, took up his brush and transcribed all the poems in his famed running script style of calligraphy, adding the famous preface for good measure. Inspired by the moment (not to mention the wine), Wang was unable to reproduce his mastery the following day when he sat down to try and re-write his work-- for he had discovered that it was already perfection.
The legend of this event was to have its effect on the Heian Court of Japan over 500 years after it originally took place. As early as the Nara period (710-794), in fact, formal Japanese gardens had something called Kyokusui 曲水- meaning a "meandering stream" as part of their design. This echoes the Chinese, Korean, and early Japanese tradition of a "stream banquet" (kyokusui no en) during which guests attempted to come up with an original poem before cups of wine, set floating upstream, arrived at their position along the riverbank. During the Heian period, these stream banquets were officially held on March 3. Over the following stretch of time, paper dolls replaced wine cups, and prayers replaced poems as this ancient Chinese custom was transformed into Japan's hina-nagashi custom, which in turn was transformed (during the Edo period ) into the doll festival .
And there you have it. My favorite story on my favorite day of the year.
For more, see the City of Dreams (Qingming at Kaifeng)
Equinox House as celestrial instrument here (thanks Steven!) and Svetlana Zakharova below (from Meimei-chan, who says, "port de bras that can launch a thousand ships")