These dolls are for celebrating "Girl's Day" or 雛祭り (hina matsuri): praying for the happiness, prosperity and early marriage of the females in the family. It's traditionally held on the 3rd of March, but the (up to) 7-tier display will be out from some time mid-February until the 4th (any longer is considered bad luck - resulting in a late marriage for the girl/s in the family).
They're predictably expensive, as you would have seen just in a department store. Parents and grandparents often pour money into these things - usually building the full seven levels over a period of years, or even generations.
Available doll sets range from a simple 1000yen set including just the Emperor and Empress (traditionally the top layer) to the full seven tiers costing significantly more than my car did new.
The celebration can be traced back to China more than 1,000 years ago, where is was believed that evil spirits and bad luck could be trapped inside the body of a doll. The dolls would then be sent floating down the river, taking the evil and misfortune away with them. This practice died out when fishermen became increasingly angry at finding dolls in their nets.
In modern Japan the dolls are set on a red carpeted platform (段掛 dankake) with one to seven steps. Each tier contains specific elements/dolls, ultimately symbolising the perfect set-up for a noble couple.
They are as follows:
- Platform one, the top tier
- Platform two
- This tier holds three court ladies and their sake equipment. A lady holding a long handled sake bearer, one holding a backup sake bearer and the seated sake bearer herself.
- Platform three
- The musical group, consisting of five male musicians and their instruments: three drummers, a flute player and the singer (holding a 扇子 sensu fan).
- Platform four
- Two priests: the Minister of the right, depicted as a young man, and the Minister of the left, much older. Mandarin and Sakura trees are often included on this level (mandarin to the right, sakura, or sometimes plum instead, to the right).
- Platform five
- This holds three helpers, or samurai, who are the protectors of the Emperor and Empress.
- Platform six
- This contains items of use to the couple inside the palace, such as a chest of drawers, a chest for a kimono and a sewing kit. Oh, for the thrilling life of old.
- Platform seven - the bottom platform
- This last level contains items the couple may need outside of their palace. Such as a set of lacquered bento boxes, and an ox-drawn cart.
Girl's day is celebrated nationwide, although it is said that the Southern island of Kyushu is the best place to see displays and original events. From February until April, 12 cities in Kyushu hold Hina Matsuri events such as re-enacting famous battles and showcasing traditional wears, in addition to beautiful displays of the dolls themselves. Many restaurants also offer a special Hina Gozen menu during this period.
The 12 cities are:
Hitoyoshi Takuma wa Hina Matsuri
from 1st February to 31st March
Satsuma no Hina Matsuri
from 3rd February to 19th April
Yanagawa Hina Decoration Tour "Sagemon Meguri"
from 11th February to 3rd April
Chikuzen-Iizuka Hina no Matsuri
from 10th February to 4 th March
Castle Town Nakatsu no Hina Matsuri
from 24 th February to 11 th March
Castle Town Walk and Hina Meguri
from 25th February to 18th March
Hirado Hot Springs and Castle Town Hina Matsuri
from 15th February to 3rd April
Tenryo Hita O-hina Matsuri
from 15th February to 31th March
Chikugo-Yoshii Hina Doll Tour "Ohinasama Meguri"
from 15th February to 3rd April
Aya Hina Yama Matsuri
from 24th February to 4 th March
Saga Castle Town Hina Matsuri
from 17th February to 31th March
Yame Hina Lantern Festival "Bonbori Matsuri"
from 1st to 31th March
List adapted from this tourism website.