Shichi-Go-San

Shichi-Go-San,or Shichigosan, which means “Seven-Five-Three”, is the name for the traditional Japanese ceremonies performed to mark the maturation of young children. The name comes from the ages at which the ceremonies are performed: three years old for both boys and girls, again at five years for boys, and at seven years for girls. The origins of the ceremony go back about a thousand years, when each stage referred to one change from children’s clothes to adults’. At three, parents stopped shaving the child’s head and let the hair grow, while at five boys first wore hakama, the trouser skirts like the ones I’m wearing in the pictures. At seven, girls started wearing adult kimono, with a proper belt rather than a single cord. These ceremonies are still very occasionally performed in something close to their original form, but this seems to be limited to families that have traditions going back that far.

Mayuki, Yuriko, and I, all in kimono, arrive at the shrine

It was a long walk, but we're here now

These days, the ceremony takes the form of everyone getting dressed up and going to a shrine (usually) or temple for a blessing. The star of the show almost always wears Japanese dress, and it’s not at all uncommon for the mother to do so as well. It is, however, very unusual for the father to do so, so a lot of people stopped to look as we walked from our flat to Shirahata Hachiman Daijin for the ceremony. In this form, the ceremonies date back at least three centuries, as they are described in very similar terms in the Onna Chōhōki, a book written in 1692. These days, it is becoming more common for parents to just have a photograph taken with their child, and not actually bother with the shrine visit. It’s even less common for the whole extended family to attend, but I think it’s a good idea. However, in November the major shrines are still very busy with small children having their Shichi-Go-San, so if you want to see a lot of really cute Japanese children in traditional dress, it’s a good time to visit a shrine. The timing of the ceremony, incidentally, is said to derive from the date on which it was performed for the son of one of the Tokugawa shoguns, so holding it in November does not have as long a history as the ceremony itself.

The ages at which the ceremony is performed were traditionally measured Japanese style, in which you count every calendar year in which you have been alive. So, if you are born at four minutes to midnight on December 31st, you are two before you are five minutes old. However, the advice from the shrines, and the people who rent out the kimonos (no, you don’t buy them), is that, for the first one, you should probably wait for the full age. For a child born late in the year you might do it just before the third birthday, but two-and-a-bit is too young. This was certainly true in our case; a year ago Mayuki would not really have been able to cope with the ceremony, but this year she did very well.

As you can see from the pictures, Mayuki is wearing a sort of jacket over her kimono. This is standard for three-year-old girls, because they can’t wear a proper kimono with an obi. Instead, the kimono just ties shut, and the jacket hides the fact that there is no obi, as well as being in a contrasting colour. This makes it much easier and quicker to dress the child, which is a good thing. She’d sat in the chair for an hour having her hair done, so I think her patience might have been running out, and getting me, Yuriko, and Yuriko’s mother all dressed in our kimonos took quite long enough.

Mayuki and I filling in the forms at the shrine

I can write my name, too!

Once you arrive at the shrine, you have to fill in a form giving your address and the child’s name, along with his or her age. In our case, at Shirahata-san, this is largely redundant, because they know who we are, but if you’re one of thirty groups being done at once at a big shrine, it’s quite essential. The names and addresses are incorporated into the norito, the prayer to the kami, so that the kami knows who the priest is talking about. When Mayuki saw me filling in the form, she wanted to do it as well, so we gave her one, and she carefully filled it in. Obviously, she can’t really write yet, but she was filling it in with small letter-like bits, in the spaces, rather than scribbling all over it. This required great concentration.

The Shinto priest, in his vestments, beating the taikoThere are several advantages to doing the ceremony at a local shrine, one of which is not having to take a three-year-old long distances in a kimono. Another, and to my mind more important, one is that at most local shrines the priests will do one family at a time, rather than half a dozen at once. Of course, if you do it a local shrine you attend frequently, they might even give you permission to have photographs taken during the ceremony, which is a little unusual. As I mentioned before, we didn’t do this ourselves; we hired one of Yuriko’s friends, who is a professional photographer, instead.

The ceremony starts with the priest banging a taiko, a Japanese drum, to draw the kami’s attention and announce that the ceremony is starting. This generally happens while all the attendees are finding their seats. For this ceremony, Mayuki sat in the centre, with me to her right and Yuriko to her left, and then my parents on my side and Yuriko’s on hers.

The priest waving the harae-gushi to purify us

Even Mayuki bowed her head

After the drum, and a greeting from the priest, the next element is the purification, or harae. First, the priest recites the harae norito while kneeling in front of the harae-gushi, or ÅŒnusa, which is also called a purification wand. This normally consists of a large number of strips of white paper on a wooden handle. When he has completed the norito, he performs the normal two bow-two clap-one bow ceremony, then takes the harae-gushi and waves it first over the inner shrine, then over the offerings, and then finally over the people gathered for the ceremony. While you are being purified, you are supposed to bow your heads, and even Mayuki did it.

Next, the priest goes deeper into the haiden, or worship hall, and kneels to recite the main norito. At a Shichi-Go-San, this is a prayer of thanks for the child’s safe development so far, and a request that she will continue to be healthy, and grow up strong, happy, and prosperous. On this sort of occasion there are standard noritos, and by the end of November the priests must be very good at reciting them. They probably even do it in their sleep.

Mayuki, Yuriko, and I kneeling on the platform in the worship hall of the shrineFinally, the child, with her parents, goes to pay her respects to the kami. The three of us climbed up onto the platform in the worship hall, and knelt on a mat, in the centre, facing in towards the honden, or sanctuary. The priest then explained what to do: “First, bow twice to say hello to the kami. Then, clap your hands twice to get his attention. Finally, bow once more to say thank you.” Mayuki has been to the shrine quite a few times, and we do the same thing in front of the kamidana (household shrine) when we do “thank you things”, so she had no problem following the directions, and then going back to her seat.

It’s very important to note that we did not enter the honden, the sanctuary, to perform the ceremony. In the photograph above, you can see a mirror, and behind that two lanterns in front of a bamboo curtain, with another two lanterns behind the curtain. The sanctuary is behind the curtain, beyond the lanterns. The priest might enter it once per year to clean it, but otherwise no-one ever goes in. This has occasionally led to surprising historical discoveries in older shrines.

Almost all of our family, in front of the shrineAfter the ceremony, Mayuki was given a pack of traditional candy, which is much like a stick of rock, and given a choice of o-mamori, or amulet. There were amulets in three colours, all with Hello Kitty on, and Mayuki decided that she liked the blue one. Then the priest gave us the traditional bottle of sake and packet of bonito flakes, and the whole thing was over. Afterwards, the shrine family let us take a lot of photographs in the worship hall, the garden behind the shrine, and, finally, in the shrine precincts, in front of the shrine. Since I can’t put all of them up, I’ve chosen one of the family group ones taken in front of the shrine.

By this time, Mayuki was getting tired, and we went on taking photographs for a little bit too long, so that she started complaining and crying, and fell asleep on my shoulder on the way home. As I said at the beginning, she participated in the ceremony very well, and had very nearly enough endurance to cope with all the photographs we wanted to take. That would not have been the case a year ago, so we made the right choice for the timing. We might, however, do the next one on the traditional Japanese age.

Okunitamajinja

The second of the Kokugakuin shrine visits on the 5th was to Okunitamajinja. This is the Soja for Musashi no Kuni. The Soja was a shrine set up near the seat of government with the kami of the most important shrines in the province (or kuni) so that the provincial governor could easily honour the kami. Since this was an important part of his job, the Soja made things much easier for him. There are thus six kami enshrined in the main shrine at Okunitamajinja. Musashi is the old province including the current Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture, Saitama Prefecture, and the eastern end of Kanagawa Prefecture. (Where I live used to be in Musashi; I think the border was somewhere in Yokohama, but it may actually have been the Yokohama border.)

Anyway, when we arrived at the shrine we all gathered in the middle courtyard. Okunitamajinja is very, very big, for a shrine within the urban bit of Tokyo, and it has a courtyard area in front of the haiden. That was where the chief priest (purple hakama with patterns, so first rank) told us a bit of the history of the shrine; the basic Soja stuff, and an unusual feature of the shrine. In most shrines, the kami face south or east, so that you are facing north or west when you pray. At Okunitamajinja, however, the kami face north. This is, apparently, because they are looking north to the region that was still being conquered in the eleventh century, to keep an eye on it. However, apparently the honden were rotated individually, so that the more important kami were on the left as you looked at them, rather than the right. As a result, the shrine now does everything backwards, treating the left-hand-side as more sacred than the right. This tends to throw visitors from other shrines.

After the little talk, we were led out of the courtyard and lined up, with Professor Okada at the front, ready to process into the shrine. The procession was led by one of the priests, and two men wearing happi coats and carrying iron staves with rings on the top. As they walked, they banged the staves on the ground, first one and then the other, so that the rings rang. These staves were originally Buddhist; their use at Okunitamajinja is probably a relic of Shinto-Buddhist syncretism, although I didn’t check to be sure.

The procession did not go to the haiden. There were other people having prayers done in the haiden. Instead, we were led round the back, into the inner courtyard between the honden and the haiden. This is covered with raked sand, so we stood for the sanpai.

The ceremony itself was very simple, just the harae and the tamagushi offering. However, another priest then explained a bit about the honden. (This priest had purple hakama, and so was second rank, and possibly the second priest of the shrine.) The current honden was built in 1667, by the fourth shogun. The previous honden was, apparently, quite spectacular, but it burned down in the early seventeenth century. (I may have mentioned that I’m occasionally tempted by the idea of writing a book entitled And Then It Burned Down: An Architectural History of Japan.) By the time they came to rebuild, the shogunate had spent all its money on building Nikko Toshogu, so they built a very simple building as a temporary measure.

Now, of course, it’s a Prefectural Treasure, because it’s pushing 350 years old. It’s all one building, although it has three doors, because the previous honden had three buildings, with two kami per building. There’s a large courtyard in front of it because, during the shrine’s biggest festival, eight mikoshi (palanquins for the kami) are brought in and lined up there. One effect of this is that you can’t see the honden well from the haiden, and it’s surrounded by a fence so that you can’t see it well from outside, either. Thus, we got a much better view of it than most people do. (Again, obviously, we couldn’t see properly inside, although the doors were open, and I could see another set of doors within.)

After that, we went to the shrine museum. The ground floor has the eight mikoshi for the festival. Apparently, one mikoshi costs about one hundred million yen, or around a million dollars. (They aren’t worth that, though, because they’re impossible to sell; they’re made for a particular shrine, so no other shrine would buy them, and they are very, very distinctive.) These mikoshi are around a hundred years old, weigh about a tonne each, and the most nominally valuable one is the one with the least gold leaf on it. This is because the carvings on it are extremely good, and didn’t need tarting up with gold. According to the priest explaining it to us. Most of the mikoshi have phoenixes on, but there is one that has dragons, and this one is also extremely elaborate. The story here, if I heard it right, is that the patron was rich, and he kept getting the craftsman drunk and telling him he could put whatever he liked on it. This one has lots of gold leaf.

The mikoshi, while impressive, are fairly standard for an influential shrine. Almost unique to Okunitamajinja, however, are the enormous taiko. When I say “enormous”, I mean that the diameter of the drum skin is over two metres. The biggest one was pulled forward in the museum because it got very wet during the big festival this year, and needed to have air flowing on both sides to dry the skins out.

The festival is held in early May. It’s a really big drum.

It’s so big, in fact, that it barely fits through the gate into the middle courtyard, and for the nominal 1,900th anniversary of the founding of the shrine (the legendary founding date is 111) the shrine is planning to rebuild the gate and make it a bit bigger.

After the group visit broke up, I went to get a Red Stamp. This is something that a lot of larger shrines do. You take a book along, and they write the name of the shrine and the date in, then stamp the page with the shrine’s seal in red. The slightly odd bit was that they didn’t ask for money. I had to bring that up. This is the official tradition, but this was the first time I’d encountered it. I suppose they figure that anyone who knows about the Red Stamps knows about the tradition as well. This is not necessarily true for the amulets.

One of these years I want to go to see the festival. I suppose the year after next, when they’re celebrating 1,900 years, might well be a good choice.

Fudatenjinja

Every year the Kokugakuin Shinto course organises a formal shrine visit for the students on the course. This is optional, partly because it isn’t covered by the course fee, but also because it involves an extra day coming to Tokyo. Since some people apparently travel enormous distances to attend the lectures, the extra thing should really be optional. Of course, the people who travel enormous distances are likely to be enthusiastic enough to attend the shrine visits as well. The visits so far have always been to two shrines on the same day, and to shrines within Tokyo. I’ve written about the previous ones I attended in my Japan Diary. This year’s visits were on July 5th, and I’ll write about them in separate articles, partly to make them easy to find.

These posts are about the visits, not the shrines themselves. I’m planning to write about the shrines at some point, but not just yet. Although a formal shrine visit has a fairly standard structure, so far all the visits I’ve been on with Kokugakuin have been different. The level of effort the shrine puts in seems to vary a bit, but there’s much more variation in where they put the effort.

Fudatenjinja put the effort into the ceremony. Fudatenjinja is a Shikinaisha (that means it’s recorded in the Engishiki, a compilation of court rituals from the early tenth century; there are just over 3,000 shrines from across Japan recorded there), and despite the “tenjin” in the name, the main kami is not Sugawara no Michizane Ko; it’s Sukunahikona no Kami. Sugawara no Michizane Ko is also enshrined there, however. It’s in Chofu, one of the cities outside the main central part of Tokyo, and it has a nice atmosphere; the shrine forest is still preserved.

We all filed into the haiden (the worship hall), where there were two shrine staff, an older man and a younger woman. I think the older man was the chief priest of the shrine. I’m not sure what the woman was, for reasons I will explain later. Once we were all seated, the ceremony started, with the woman beating a taiko (Japanese drum). She then briefly returned to her seat, before going to stand in front of the ohnusa (the wooden wand with paper streamers used in purification), and recite a harai norito (purification prayer). She then waved the ohnusa over the priest, the offerings, and us. Then she briefly returned to her seat, before going to take the lids of the bottles of sake placed on a table in front of the steps to the honden (the hall where the kami is enshrined). This is a standard abbreviated form for making offerings.

Next, the chief priest went up to the centre of the haiden, in front of the offerings, and read a norito. This was written for us, and, in addition to general protection, asked for aid with our studies. Since Sugawara no Michizane Ko, a kami of scholarship, is enshrined there, this was very appropriate.

After the norito had been recited, the woman danced kagura (sacred dance); a sakaki-mai, with a branch of sakaki.

Next, Professor Okada, representing the rest of us, offered a tamagushi, a branch of sakaki with shide (white paper strips folded into a lightning shape) attached. He received it from the woman, then put it on a table, bowed twice, clapped twice, and bowed once. We all bowed and clapped with him.

After he had returned to his seat, the woman put the lids back on the sake, which, like taking them off, is a standard short form of taking the offerings down again. The kami only get the offerings while the ceremony is happening; afterwards people eat and drink them.

Finally, the chief priest made a single bow, and that closed the ceremony.

Now, why am I not sure about the woman’s status? Her role in the ceremony was that of a subsidiary priest, and she was wearing the headgear specified for female priests. The dances are normally performed by miko, but there is nothing saying that a priest cannot do that. However, the woman’s hakama (trouser skirt) were the wrong colour. This isn’t as random as it sounds; the Association of Shinto Shrines has rules for the colour of hakama, and they depend on your rank as a priest. The lowest ranks, fourth and third, have pale yellow-green, the second rank has purple, the first rank has purple with designs, and the special rank has white with designs. Miko wear red hakama. Her hakama, however, were dark green, which isn’t on the list. My hypothesis, then, is that she is training to be a priest, but hasn’t formally received her rank yet. This may be wrong; someone who knows more about it than me might be able to tell me what it means.

After the ceremony the chief priest told us a bit about the shrine. Although it’s very old, it had to move after a major flood about five hundred years ago, and all the records were lost in the flood, so not much is known about its early history. The honden, however, is over three hundred years old, and recognised as a major treasure of the city (Chofu, not Tokyo). The haiden has been built entirely around it, so you can only see it from inside the haiden, and then only if you walk all the way in to the back. After the talk, the chief priest invited us to go and have a look, so, of course, we all did. After all, it’s rather unlikely that we’ll have another opportunity. It does have interesting carvings on it, and certainly looked old.

Naturally, we couldn’t see inside the honden. The honden’s doors are typically only opened once or twice a year, and even then no-one goes inside. At some shrines, wooden kami images centuries old got rotten and worm-eaten because no-one went into the honden to look at them for decades at a time. I think these days the practice is to go in once a year to clean (at least, that’s what happens at my local shrine), to prevent those sorts of problems. Anyway, the outside of the honden is all you normally get to see, and at most shrines even that is quite difficult. Having it entirely enclosed, as at Fudatenjinja, is a little unusual, but fences to restrict visibility are common.

When we left, we received a very small drink of miki (sacred sake), and an ume sweet, which had been offered to the kami. The ume (Japanese plum or apricot) is associated with Sugawara no Michizane Ko, which is presumably why that was chosen. It was rather tastier than the bonito flakes that seem to be the standard choice.

I enjoyed this visit, and liked the atmosphere of the shrine. It’s also fairly close to our home (about an hour door to door), so I may well go back in the future.