This post may contain compensated links. For further information please read our disclosure.

Shichi-go-san festival in Japan

Everything you need to know about Shichi-go-san celebrations

There’s not much that’s more adorable, or kawaii I guess, than dozens of young children in traditional kimonos.  It’s a sight you’re likely to see a lot in Shinto shrines during the shichi-go-san festival in mid November.  An excess of cuteness and so many bright colours is a photographers dream so we can’t resist making space on our next itinerary to include an extra shrine or two during our autumn visit to Japan.

Shichi go san literally translates as seven-five-three.  These are the ages of the children taking part in the festival but it’s sometimes referred to in English as Children’s Shrine-Visiting day.

The Shinto shichi-go-san ceremony

The festival date is always the 15th November but it’s visiting the shrine with family members that matters so although the 15th is the biggest day you’re likely to see children dressed and taking part in the ceremony throughout November.  When the date falls on a working day it’s not always possible for the family to be together to celebrate and it’s more important for everyone to be present that the actual date itself.  From the little I know of Shinto traditions I do love that they are pragmatic rather than prescriptive, focusing in on what matters and the rest falls into place.

November 15 is also the day for celebrating the autumn harvest under the lunar calendar and is a very auspicious date.  Within the shrine you might also see a harvest offering to the deity Ujigami.

The ceremony itself is fairly quick and simple.  The Shinto Priest will give thanks to Ujigami, the guardian god of good health for the child safely reaching the ages 3 and 5 for boys and 3 and 7 for girls.  He also requests the deity to continue looking over them in the future.  There is a purification ceremony where the child sips some sacred sake, not alcoholic of course, and that’s pretty much all.  The children are then usually given a small gift of chitose ami (thousand year candy) by the Priest.  You will see the children, or more often the parents, carrying a paper bag containing their treat.  The bags often have a picture of a turtle and a crane symbolising longevity and bamboo and pine tress representing good luck.

Children in kimono

The history of the shichi-go-san festival

The festival dates back to the Heian period when Japan was ruled from Kyoto (between 794-1185).  At that time only the aristocratic families celebrated.  It was adopted more widely in the Edo period (between 1603-1868) when the Samurai class also participated but it wasn’t commonly practiced by all until the Meiji era (beginning 1868).

In Japan, and the Shinto religion, odd numbers are lucky and even numbers (especially 4) are unlucky this is part of the reason for these particular ages being celebrated.  Historically it was common for children not to survive childhood illnesses so it was considered that until the age of 7 they belonged to the gods, a type of coping mechanism I guess for losing a child so young but having faith that they had been called back to the gods.

There were also specific traditions that related to each of the ages:

  • Traditionally children had their heads shaved until the age of three so the celebration was of them finally being able to grow their hair.  Although the custom is no longer practiced both boys and girls celebrate at age 3
  • At age 5 boys put on the traditional dress known as the hakama for the first time in public.  The celebrations is called hakamagi-no-gi.
  • At age 7 girls begin wearing the obi sash to tie their kimono, before that they use only the decorative cords.  The celebration is called obitoki-no-gi.

Yasaka Shrine

Joining in the Shichi-go-san celebrations

Shinto is a traditional Japanese religion not practiced outside Japan but visitors are welcomed to the shrines, they are a place of gathering, community and celebration.  There are a few guidelines for visiting a Shrine but foreigners are not expected to believe or worship although they are welcome to offer a prayer if they wish.

Generally children are happy to pose for photos and the parents are accommodating but of course in any situation where a strangers child is being photographed if it is in a way where they may be recognizable always ask permission from the parent and respect their wishes.  If a language barrier limits your ability to communicate in words then indicating the camera, the child and a smile should work.

You may also want to congratulate the family on the important event, the simple version of congratulations for an event like this is “omedetou gozaimasu”, you will hear it being called out all around you during the celebrations.

Feeling Inspired?  Save the pictures to Pinterest. 

Shichi-go-san celebrations (Childrens Day) in Japan
Shichi-go-san celebrations (Childrens Day) in Japan

If you’ve been to a Japanese Shrine for shichi-go-san or any of the children’s festivals we’d love you to share your experiences in the comments below.

25 Comments

  • This is fascinating, I’ve never even heard of this festival before. I think that learning about things like this, things that are just so so different to anything I’m accustomed to, is one of my absolute favourite things about travel.

    Wonderful post, and beautiful photos, I look forward to reading your next post!

  • As everyone has already said Toni, the children are totally adorable and the whole thing looks really interesting.

    What I’m completely loving though is that you picked up on the word kawaii. In my daughter’s teenage world it’s one of their favorite words. They use it all the time along with bae which is not Japanese and is a whole other story…….

  • This looks like such a fun festival! The kids are so adorable. We missed out on attending a festival when we were in Japan, but we did really enjoy visiting all the shrines!

  • I’m sure the kids love having a day to just celebrate them. Interesting history on this festival. Thank goodness the children now live way beyond the age of 7. I can’t imagine how parents coped in the past. The kids look so regal in their costumes. Great travel story.

    • I wish I’d learned the language at school, I’ve learned the basics and try to add a bit to my vocab before each visit but I have absolutely no talent for languages so I am pretty much limited to the functional tourist type questions and answers no real conversations.

  • What an interesting festival. It’s neat that they will partake in it whenever they can have the family assembled. Also I was taken back for a second when you said they sipped from sacred sake! Then I read of course non alcoholic.

  • Japanese culture is very interesting and not something I’m very familiar with. I like reading historical background of countries. Thanks for highlighting this festival.

    • Thanks Maya. We like to try to find out as much about the local customs and celebrations we come across as possible, somewhere like Japan where we speak so little of the language it can be difficult but a lot of fun trying to piece together the information.

  • I loved shichi-go-san when I lived in Japan. The little girls were so pretty. (It was mostly girls that I saw). I think it’s wonderful that they have a festival commemorating the passage of childhood. It goes so fast (I have kids so I know!) and it’s nice to stop and celebrate the passing.

    • You are right, I think a ceremony like this where they celebrate at the same time as their friends would be something the little girls would love – and a lot of fun for Mum too picking the kimono and accessories

  • What a festival oozing in cuteness and color! Of course, 3 is a very important age for all children around the world. It is said that all major development comes from birth to three years.

  • What a neat festival. Thanks for sharing the tradition and history behind it. Interesting tidbit of information about the (odd-number) ages of who can actually participate and what the customs are related to that age. And you’re right, the kids in their outfits are too cute!!

  • As a mother to a three year old, I wouldn’t like the head shaving tradition but I love reading about Japanese culture. There are so many traditions and so much respect for culture.

  • Very informative post. Thanks for sharing it, especially since it seems something very special even in Japan. I’ve never been anywhere in Asia, but seeing young kids in kimonos seems very attractive. Oh, I’d love to go to this festival.

    • Thanks Anda. I love to see the little kids when they are dressed up for something like this. They are so adorable as they balance the need to behave properly in their pretty clothes and their natural desire to play as normal.

  • Hi, Toni!
    Yes, not only on 15 November, many shichi-go-san children are seen on weekends. Actually, many parents set the ceremony on a lucky day of the Japanese traditional fortunetelling. The lucky days are not so rare – the best days come once or twice a week and other lucky days are between the best days. As a result, lucky days on weekends are the most popular for shichi-go-san.
    So cute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.