If you’re in Japan anytime in the month of November, my advice to you is to hightail it to a shrine. November 15th is Shichi-go-san (literally 7-5-3), a celebration of children aged 3, 5 and 7 and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen adorable toddlers kitted out in full kiddie kimonos. But since Shichi-go-san isn’t a national holiday, most families will head to their local shrine on the weekend nearest November 15th or even as early as late October. For tourists, chancing across a shichi-go-san celebration at a shrine is not only a great photo op but an opportunity to witness a centuries-old tradition in action.
This colorful holiday was once reserved for samurai families back in the Middle Ages. The aformentioned ages were milestones in an upper-class child’s life:
- 3 year old boys and girls were no longer required to shave their heads and could let their hair grow
- 5 year old boys began to put on hakama (trousers) to go out in public
- 7 year old girls began tying their kimono with actual obi sashes instead of cords
By the Edo Period (1603-1868), the celebration had trickeld down to the “lower” classes and all celebrants began visiting shrines to have their children blessed by priests. That tradition still continues today as parents dress their children up in what for many is their first real kimono and trot them off to the local shrine for prayers and pictures. Afterwards, children often receive chitose-ame candy, stick candy that comes in a bag decorated with turtles and cranes, animals that denote longevity.
Shichi-go-san took on a more personal meaning for my family this year as we bundled up my daughter in a kimono borrowed from our neighbor and headed off to the shrine last week to participate in the festivities. Technically, she’s not quite of age, turning 3 in just a few months time. However, in Kumamoto, my neighbor assured me it was the tradition to take 2-year-olds to the shrine as well, and judging by the amount of young toddlers at our local shrine, we weren’t the only ones with a pre-3-year-old celebrant. We certainly turned heads as the only non-Japanese family there but our daughter has been raised in Japan since her birth and we wanted to give her the chance to participate in something her friends and classmates would surely be doing. Who knows if the memory will ever resurface for her somewhere down the road, but for us parents, it was a very fascinating and personal glimpse into an important coming-of-age event.