CAMP ZAMA (March 4, 2020) – The U.S. Army Garrison Japan Army Community Service walking tour to the Zama Shrine proved amazing cultural experiences don’t always require extensive travel.
It took only about 10 minutes for the tour’s masked and socially distanced participants to walk from the Community Recreation Center on Camp Zama to the shrine March 3, which marks Girls’ Day in Japan, a time to pray for a daughter’s health and happiness.
On the street below the shrine, the dozen participants looked up in awe at the hundreds of “Hinamatsuri” dolls on one side of the long line of steps that lead up to it.
“It’s beautiful. I had no idea [the shrine] was here,” said Anne Easterbrook, a military spouse who participated. “I’d love to come back and see what else they have throughout the year.”
Hinamatsuri displays, placed on red felt, feature dolls wearing the traditional court dress of the Japanese Heian period (794 to 1185), and Japanese households with daughters traditionally set them up in celebration of Girls’ Day. The practice began during the Edo Period (1603-1867) as a way to ward off evil spirits.
Sari Sugai, Camp Zama ACS Exceptional Family Member Program and New Parent Support Program coordinator, said she organized the tour with the intent of raising morale.
“We would like all the families, the community, to experience Japanese cultures as much as possible,” Sugai said. “It’s been a really challenging year for all of us and I think this was a good way for everybody to come out and get to know each other and enjoy each other’s company.”
Before the tour, Sugai provided participants with an overview of Girls’ Day, explaining that many households display the dolls beginning Feb. 5, and take them down March 3.
Sugai also distributed Japanese sweet rice crackers to the tour’s participants because it is a traditional snack on Girls’ Day.
“Each [type of cracker] has a color and each color has a meaning,” Sugai said. “White is for snow, green is for spring leaves, and pink is for peach. So this is the snack for people’s expectation for the spring coming up after the long winter.”
Also, Kasumi Yamamoto, wife of Toshiaki Yamamoto, the shrine’s priest, met the participants there and told them about the extensive display, and distributed fact sheets about Girls’ Day in Japan.
The shrine has displayed the dolls on the steps annually for five years, Yamamoto said. Organizers of the event acquired the dolls through years of donations.
Normally the shrine displays the dolls for three days, but displayed them for four days this year because it was the fifth anniversary, Yamamoto said. The shrine itself dates back to 539-571.
Marissa Ayag-Garcia, a newcomer to Camp Zama and the ACS Family Advocacy Program manager, said she was thankful for the tour.
“I’ve only been here for less than six months,” Ayag-Garcia said. “This is the first time I’ve been to the shrine. I didn’t even know that it existed. I didn’t know it was in our neighborhood of Camp Zama. It’s a gem. It’s a beautiful shrine right in our neighborhood.”
Amber Herald, a military spouse, said she and her family have also been here for about six months, and she wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about Japan.
In addition, Herald said she wanted to teach her 3-year-old daughter about Girls’ Day.
Girls’ Day displays typically place emperor and empress dolls at the top, with members of the court below, and Herald said the day before she had unintentionally bought a picture for her daughter of the emperor and empress and the three ladies-in-waiting immediately below them.
“I just learned about [Hinamatsuri displays] today,” Herald said. “I didn’t know [about them] when I bought it.”
After looking at Yamamoto’s handout, Herald said she planned to incorporate some traditional Girls’ Day foods at dinner that night, including “chirashizushi,” or seasoned white rice with fish and vegetables, and “hinaarare,” puffed rice sweets.
Easterbrook, meanwhile, said she also took part in the tour because she wanted to learn more about Japanese culture while living here, and the tour delivered.
“I’m really thankful for this opportunity to be exposed to new things and learn more about the community we’re in,” Easterbrook said.