Shichi-Go-San is a traditional Japanese event that has been around for centuries. Many families visit shrines with their children dressed in their best clothes for the Shichi-Go-San celebrations.
However, not many people know much about the origin and meaning of Shichi-Go-San, nor do they have a firm grasp of the preparations and procedures required for the ceremony.
Let’s have a look at the meaning of Shichi-Go-San, where to go to visit the shrine, the preparations required for the Shichi-Go-San ceremony, and appropriate clothing.
What is the meaning of Shichi-Go-San?
Shichi-Go-San celebrates and prays for the healthy growth of children and, as the name suggests, is held at the ages of three, five, and seven. Each age ceremony has a different name and meaning, and the period at which the ceremony is performed differs for men and women.
First, let’s take a closer look at when the Shichi-Go-San was first held and the meaning of the three ceremonies.
Origin of the Shichi-Go-San and the meaning behind the rituals
There are various theories about the origin of Shichi-Go-San, but it is said to be based on three rituals held at court from the Heian period (794-1185).
In the old days, when medical care was less developed and hygiene was not as good as today, the mortality rate of children was very high, and they were treated as ‘kami no uchin (children of the gods)’ until they were seven years old. At that point, they were recognised as full-fledged human beings.
It was a great joy to see a child grow up safely, and as a parent, you could not help but wish for healthy growth. Shichi-Go-San originated as a thanks-giving and celebration to the gods for developing children at the age of three, five, and seven. This tradition eventually spread among samurai families and merchants as the model for the current Shichi-Go-San in the Edo period.
It is widely believed that the name ‘Shichi-Go-San’ spread to the general public during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and that the present form was designed after the Taisho era (1912-1926).
There is a reason why three, five, and seven-year-olds were chosen as milestones to celebrate. When the Chinese calendar was introduced to Japan, odd numbers were thought to be yang or good luck. Another reason was that those ages are also viewed as key dates for growth, with children understanding language at the age of three, gaining wisdom at five, and having baby teeth replaced at seven.
The age of seven, in particular, was considered to be the age of grand celebration, as it was considered to be the age of full birth from ‘kami no uchi (God’s child)’ to this life as a human being.
Shichi-Go-San has aspects that have developed independently in different regions, and the cultures may differ slightly. The three ceremonies that originated are as follows.
Three-year-old boy/girl ‘hair-placing ceremony’
During the Heian period (794-1185), it was customary for both boys and girls to shave their heads on the seventh day after birth and to keep their heads shaved until they were around three years old. It was believed that keeping your head clean prevented illness and that healthy hair would grow back later.
Moreover, a ‘hair laying ceremony’ was held around the spring of the third year of age. This event was celebrated by placing a piece of white thread or cotton white hair on the child’s head to pray for long life.
Five-year-old boys ‘Hakamagi’ ceremony
During the Heian period (794-1185), the ‘Hakamagi’ ceremony was held for boys aged between five and seven when they put on their first hakama, the formal attire of the time. This ceremony, also known as ‘chakko,’ is believed to have been the first time boys joined the ranks of boys and donned haori hakama.
Initially, the ceremony was performed for both men and women, but during the Edo period, it was changed to a ceremony for boys only. During the function, the boys needed to first stand on a board, meaning “catching the sky,” facing the direction of good fortune, and put on the hakama, starting with the left foot, considered auspicious. It is also said that they put on a crown and worshipped the gods of the four directions with the hope that they would win over their enemies from all angles.
In the modern imperial family, the Chakko ceremony is still held for boys at the age of five, followed by the Fukasogi ceremony, in which the boy jumps from the top of the Go board. Following the Fukasogi ceremony, shrines across the country hold a Go board ceremony during the Shichi-Go-San pilgrimage.
Obi-Toki no Ritual” for seven-year-old girls
In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), a ceremony was held to mark the first time an obi (sash) was fastened after removing the cord used to put on the kimono. This ceremony was established in the Muromachi period (1336-1573) as the ‘Obi-Toki Ceremony’ and was initially celebrated at the age of nine for both men and women.
The Obi-Toki ceremony was also known as the Cord-Off Ceremony or Yotsutsu-Mi Celebration. However, in the Edo period, it was replaced by the Hakamagi ceremony at the age of five for boys and the Obi-Toki ceremony at seven for girls. It was recognised that the child would begin her journey to womanhood after this Obi-Toki ceremony.
Where should I go for the Shichi-Go-San ceremony?
For the Shichi-Go-San ceremony, families visit a shrine to give thanks for their child’s growth. Generally, it is customary to visit a neighbouring shrine where the local deity (Ujigami-sama) is present. However, an increasing number of families nowadays go to famous shrines.
Of course, it is not limited to neighbourhood shrines, but it is also a good idea to visit shrines with unique histories, such as shrines with a long history, beautiful landscapes, or family memories. However, children wearing kimonos or formal dresses, which they are unfamiliar with, may become tired if the shrine is too far away.
When visiting a distant shrine, check in advance the weather forecast, whether reservations for prayers are required, the prayer fee, and where parking is available. Remember that small children are the main attraction, and you must ensure they do not feel burdensome.
There are many things to book and prepare for before the Shichi-Go-San ceremony, such as prayers, dressing, photography, etc. If the ceremony is held on or around 15 November, it is generally advisable to start preparations from around September at the latest.
Start preparations in advance to ensure that your child’s important anniversary is celebrated peacefully.
1. Make a reservation at the shrine you wish to visit.
Reservations are often required for prayers at shrines, so first, make a reservation at the shrine you wish to visit. Even though the official day for Shichi-Go-San is 15 November, it is recommended that you make plans by summer and contact the shrine by early September, as the day and the weekend before and after the day tend to be crowded.
When inviting grandparents from both sides of the family, everyone’s schedule can be accommodated, so some families skip the busy November period and visit the shrine in September, October, or early December. In any case, it is best to arrange your schedule as early as possible.
When making a reservation, confirm the content of the prayers, the time required, the initial fee, and whether parking is available. It is also a good idea to have a noshi-bukuro (gift bag) and coins to offer money before the day of your visit.
2. Book a photo shoot
If you wish to have your photos taken by a visiting photographer or in a studio, you will need to make a reservation for the photo shoot. Although it is possible to have the photos taken on the day of the Shichi-Go-San, many people choose to have the photos taken on a different day, considering the child’s physical strength and the family’s schedule.
Of course, it is also possible to shoot at a time significantly later than the Shichi-Go-San. You can have the photo shoot at a time convenient for your family, e.g., on the birthday, with the siblings’ celebrations, or to avoid busy times of the year.
Some studios offer various services, such as costume rental, dressing and setting, or renting a kimono for a visit.
3. Make an appointment for dressing, hair and make-up.
Many children wear kimonos for the Shichi-Go-San and will need to have their hair and make-up done on the day of the event. Find a hairdresser who can dress and do hair and make-up, and book by mid-September at the latest. Small children may feel anxious or uncomfortable in unfamiliar places, so we recommend choosing a hairdresser you are familiar with or one that is good at dealing with children.
If you are renting a costume, some shops may be able to dress your child, so check when you make a booking.
4. Try on costumes
Around one month before the Shichi-Go-San, arrange for a dress fitting. Of course, you can check the size of the costume, but you should also prepare tabi socks and sandals for your child’s movements in anticipation of the day of the event.
Once the kimono is on, put on tabi socks and sandals and check that the child can walk well. Some children may not like it if you show them the costume on the day of the Shichi-Go-San and tell them to wear it. Showing them the outfits regularly, saying, “Let’s wear kimonos to the shrine,” and commenting on how precious they are could help them get used to the event idea.
5. Prepare the camera/camcorder and the first fee, and then go for the visit!
Check the memory and batteries of your camera or video camera the day before the visit to avoid confusion on the holiday day. It is also recommended to prepare spare batteries and memory cards. Also, check what you need to bring, such as towels, a change of clothes for your child, and favourite shoes.
Arrange a new note for the first fee and place it in a noshi-bukuro (gift bag) with a red-and-white bow-tied mizuhiki. Write the child’s name on the lower half and ‘Hatsuho ryori’ or ‘Tamagushi ryori’ on the upper half, depending on the shrine.
Place the money in the inner bag with the person facing outwards and upwards. On the front of the inner bag, write the amount of money contained in it as ‘kin 00 yen’; on the back, in the lower left-hand corner, write your name and address. If there is no inner bag, write the amount, address, and name in the lower left-hand corner on the reverse side of the noshi-bukuro.
What is the appropriate attire for Shichi-Go-San?
As Shichi-Go-San is a private celebration, there are no rules on what to wear. However, taking into consideration that it is a ceremony in front of God, it is recommended that both the child and family choose a kimono, suit, or formal dress.
Select clothing appropriate for the season and your child’s age and preferences, keeping in mind minimum etiquette, such as not being too casual and not exposing too much skin.
Many children wear kimonos for the Shichigosan, each wearing a unique style for their age.
Girls aged three usually wear a ‘mitsumi’ (three-piece kimono), a soft heko obi sash, and a sleeveless jacket called a hifu. It is designed to be less burdensome and clumsy-proof, even for small children.
Seven-year-old girls wear a child-sized adult kimono called a yotsumi, but the accessories and dressing methods are the same for adults. To dress them, they need a lintel, collar, obi, obiage, obijime, etc., and accessories such as a fan and hakoseko.
Boys wear haori hakama for both 3- and 5-year-olds, but sometimes the maternity kimono worn during the omiyage (visit to the shrine) is re-tailored and used with the hakama.
In addition, the Japanese kimono requires tabi (socks) and zori (slippers) for footwear. Many people go to the shrine in a dress or suit, as it can be challenging to walk in zori, which they are not used to, and they are worried about using the toilet in a kimono. Families with small children, in particular, often take a pre-shoot in kimono and wear Western-style clothing on the day of the visit.
The children are the stars of the Shichi-Go-San, so it is not a good idea for the family to stand out from the children. Dress should not be too casual like everyday clothes, but try to dress in a way that is not too conspicuous and complements the children.
Mothers should wear elegant and glamorous clothes. Most mothers wear a dress or formal suit that is easy to move around in, as they have to take care of their children, but some choose to wear a kimono to match their children. If you decide to wear kimono, pick an informal visiting gown or coloured kimono.
Fathers generally wear a suit, regardless of what the child or mother wears. A formal suit or clothes for work is acceptable, but dark-coloured suits are mostly encouraged. Shirts and ties should be simple, but with a glamorous colour or pattern, so they look good next to the kimono.
In addition, family members’ clothing should be of a lower grade than your children’s, but couples should try to match and balance the qualities.
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