Every November 15th, girls aged three and seven, and boys aged three and five, are tucked and squeezed into traditional kimonos and hakamas (boys kimonos) and marched off to local shrines by doting parents, to thank the deities for their children’s good health and well-being.
Literally meaning ‘7-5-3’, Shichi-go-san (七五三) is a celebration that can be traced back to the Heian period (approx. 8th–12th century). Back then, it was customary for all children to keep their heads shaven until reaching age three, at which time a kamioki (lit. putting on hair) ceremony was performed and their hair allowed to grow for the first time. With infant mortality rates very high at that time, reaching three years old was seen as a significant milestone. The general consensus seems to have been that if you reached three, you’d probably be all right.
The custom was later adopted and refined by the samurai class during the Edo period (1603–1868) to include celebrations at ages five and seven too. Boys that reached age five were able to wear a hakama for the first time (hakama-gi) and girls that reached seven years old, were given their first proper obi (sash) to tie around their kimonos (obitoki). Both were important events for children in their social development and together with the kamioki custom, were brought together in one celebration. The date seems to have been set as November 15th during the Edo period by the Shogun Iemitsu, to coincide with the hakamagi ritual.
Today, as with many such festivals, much of the original meaning is lost but it is still a magical day for both parents and children to dress up in extravagant outfits and feel special. The 15th is not strictly observed either, since it is not an official national holiday. Busy parents will take their kids to shrines anytime during November.
How to do Shichi-go-san with your kids
First, you’ll need to have some children that are the appropriate age (see above). You’ll then need to either spend an eye-watering amount of cash on a new kimono for them, scour online auctions for a second-hand one, rent one from someplace, be lucky enough to borrow one from a neighbor, or, follow more recent trends and forego the kimono altogether and dress them up in a suit or special dress – but where’s the fun in that?
Beautiful kimonos for girls and hakamas for boys can be bought from department stores and specialist shops around the country. Be prepared to pay anything from 150,000 yen for a basic boys hakama to 500,000 yen plus for a girls kimono with all the trimmings.
Searching for an online kimono rental service is the cheapest option. Some even offer English telephone support. There is a dazzling array of styles to choose from, including traditional patterns or modern prints featuring pink bunnies and even dinosaurs. Be prepared to pay anything from 8,000 yen for a three-year-old girls basic set (including geta shoes) to 25,000 yen for a seven-year-old girls set. These prices usually include free delivery and no additional cleaning charges, but hurry, since they get booked out fast!
Another rental option is at the shrines themselves. Temporary photo studios/rental booths offer rental and photo sets but usually require advanced booking. Check the website of your local shrine for details.
Pick up a bargain on Japan’s equivalent of E-Bay – Yahoo Auctions (auctions.yahoo.co.jp). Unless you are a confident Japanese speaker however, you may need to enlist a friend’s help to navigate the Japanese-only interface and correspond with the seller if your bid is successful. Expect to pay somewhere around 5,000 yen for a previously owned full set. They have most likely been worn only once though, so this is an absolute steal.
Once you have obtained the kimono and full set of shoes, socks, hair accessories, handbags and other knick-knacks, you’ll then need to figure out how to put it on! Wearing an adult kimono requires great skill, which is why most people opt for a fitting service too. Not possible obviously if you are ordering one online, but fear not, the internet comes to the rescue again. YouTube has many videos explaining the process so that your kids won’t be coming undone as soon as they step outside the house.
At the shrine
Then you simply need to get yourselves to the local jinja (shrine) where you can go photo crazy (or book a package with one of the temporary studios set up inside the grounds) and buy some traditional red and white, good luck chitoseame (lit. 1,000 years) candies to complete the occasion. These stick shaped sweets are sold in decorative bags, usually featuring crane and turtle designs – both symbols of longetivity in Japan.
For purists, you can go the whole hog and have a priest perform a purification ritual (oharai) for your child (possibly to pray they don’t get too many cavities from eating chitoseame). There is no need to book in advance, but expect to pay around 10,000 yen per child. Photography is usually forbidden inside the temple buildings.
If you want to beat the crowds, head to a small local shrine for some photoshoot privacy, but if it is the party atmosphere you seek then follow the herd to the bigger, famous shrines such as Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka or Fushimi Inari in Kyoto.
With your kids looking like angels, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to photograph them from every angle you can. These can of course be mobile phone snaps, but if you go to all the expense to dress them up properly, you might want to consider getting photosdone professionally.
High-street photo studios offer Shichi-go-san photoshoots. Big names like Studio Alice (studio-alice.co.jp) or Studio Mario (studio-mario.jp) include the outfits as part of the shoot and will also offer cut-price rental fees for the garments if you wish to take them out of the studio too. Expect to pay somewhere in the region of 30,000 yen including the shoot (and fitting and make-up) and the array of photo products they will try and get you to buy afterwards. Be warned however that many such studios will generally not release the photo data as part of the deal.
If you want professionally taken photos but want to do whatever you want with the images, then consider hiring a freelancer or brush up your own skills. Tip: Get a decent digital SLR camera!