Little boy and two little girls in Japanese costume
Culture & tradition,  Japan,  Sunday Stills

Celebrating childhood at the shrines of Japan

Nikko’s Futarasan shrine is only five minutes’ or so walk from its famous neighbour, Toshogu, but it seemed to us that we were in a different world. The crowds had dissipated, leaving just a handful of tourists and some local families. We strolled around in a much more leisurely way than had been possible at Toshogu, taking photos and soaking up the tranquil atmosphere and the rich colours of the leaves just starting to take on their autumn hues.

Futarasan was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko and who also founded the nearby Rinnoji Temple. It is dedicated to the deities of Nikko’s three most sacred mountains: Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro; Futarasan being another name for Nantai, the most prominent of the three.

You can wander round the grounds here for free; although there is a small charge to enter an area featuring a little forested garden with several beautiful halls. These include the Shinyosha (portable shrines store) and Daikokuden where some treasures, including some exquisitely worked swords, were on display. There is also a sacred fountain, a modern Buddha statue and some old sacred trees. We found this the most peaceful part as few people other than us seemed minded to pay that small fee; and it provided a delightful and serendipitous opportunity to witness a local custom.

Shichi-Go-San

Several local families with small children dressed up in traditional costume were clearly here for a celebration. The festivities were focussed on a building to the right of the shrine itself; one mother there was more than happy for me to photograph her children, even encouraging them to pose for me.

When we left the shrine we encountered another local family group just outside, the children in the process of climbing on to a rickshaw; and again there was no problem with us taking some photos. We then followed the rickshaw as the children were taken for a ride along the path towards Toshogu, escorted by their proud parents. They stopped at intervals for more photos, taken both by their own photographer and a few other tourists who had by now joined us. A woman standing nearby, a family member I think, was kind enough to explain to me what was going on.

Japanese family around a rickshaw
Climbing on board the rickshaw

She told me that it is the custom in Japan for children to be taken to a shrine to be blessed on reaching three, five and seven years of age. Girls are blessed at three and seven years, while boys are blessed at the age of five. In the past, the lack of medical expertise and knowledge meant that to get through infancy was something to be celebrated; so each milestone on the journey was marked in this way. Today when childhood mortality is thankfully much less of an issue, the custom of thanking the spirits for the good health of a child remains. Later I read that the festival is called Shichi-Go-San – ‘Seven-Five-Three’.

It appeared that this family had one child at each of these ages: a boy of five and girls of three and seven. The seven-year-old was very solemn, like a little lady; clearly after having taken part in a previous such celebration she must have considered herself an old hand, responsible for keeping her younger siblings up to the mark!

If they look a little young for their respective ages, this could be because traditionally in Japan children are considered to be one year old at birth and gain a year on each New Year’s Day. These blessings usually take place on the nearest weekend to 15th November; I’m not sure why this family were celebrating a few weeks before that in late October.

Sakurayama Hachimangu, Takayama

A week or so earlier, in Takayama, we had witnessed another childhood ceremony at the beautiful Sakurayama Hachimangu shrine. This Shinto shrine is in a lovely setting on the northern edge of the town and is the focal point for Takayama’s autumn festival. There are thousands of these Hachiman Shrines in Japan; they are dedicated to Hachiman, the kami (god or spirit) of war, who used to be popular among the leading military clans of the past. The origins of this particular shrine date back to the time of the Emperor Nintoku (313-399); it was he who sent Prince Takefurukuma-no-mikoto to subjugate the monster Sukuna, a beast with two heads, four arms and four legs. Before undertaking this task, the warrior enshrined his father, the Emperor Ohjin, as the deity of this shrine and prayed for the success of his mission.

Tree in front of Buddhist shrine
Sakurayama Hachimangu

Omiyamairi

We were fortunate here to witness another local childhood celebration, which I touched on briefly in a previous post. On arrival we had found the steps up to the shrine blocked by a family posing for formal photos. We stopped to see what was happening; and a passing guide escorting another couple around kindly stopped to tell us about it.

She explained that parents in Takayama to bring their new-born baby to be blessed about 40 days after the birth. This first visit to a shrine is known as Hatsu Miyamairi or more commonly Omiyamairi. In the past, this would be scheduled very precisely, and according to the baby’s gender, e.g. 31 days old for a baby boy and 32 days for a baby girl. The exact timing depends on the region; here in Takayama, our informant told us, 40 days is traditional. But nowadays it has become a common practice for babies (regardless of gender) to have their Omiyamairi at any time between 30 to 100 days after their birth. Many parents choose to go after their baby’s first month health check; and it may also depend on the availability of a priest and of family members.

Traditionally, the mother and grandmother wear formal kimono, and their babies will be adorned in colourful robes or wraps. But the family we saw were in smart Western-style clothing. The purpose of the Omiyamairi is to show gratitude to the gods for the safe delivery; to ask the local deity of the shrine to bless the baby; and to welcome the baby as part of the local worshipping community. The baby is introduced to the local deity by calling out his/her name and birth information; and the god is asked to purify, protect and bless the baby with happiness and health.

No photos can be taken during the ceremony itself; but afterwards of course the proud new parents like to pose before the shrine with their offspring and other relatives, just as we saw here. To me it was very reminiscent of wedding photography, with the photographer arranging different combinations of the part in turn; the parents and baby, all the women, the whole group and so on. It was a lovely thing to witness and added to our appreciation of the shrine and its pretty setting.

These beautiful traditional celebrations are my contribution to this week’s Sunday Stills theme celebrating kids and pets.

I visited Japan in 2013

13 Comments

  • Fergy.

    Holy Hannah Banana as Lynne would say (she invented it so as not to swear in front of her children) but you have been busy.

    I don’t look at your site for a couple of days and come back to find another handful of posts. You really are being productive and this, as always, is a joy to read and, even moreso, to look at, I really wish I could take images like you. I am seriously thinking about upgrading from the compact, much as I love the convenience and I know you gave me some great advice about a “middle” camera which seems the way to go as I do not want a DSLR hanging round my neck all day.

    Photographing children is always difficult, not necessarily technically but regrettably with all the 21st century baggage that goes with it. I suppose you have a slight advantage being female but it is still fraught. These are beautiful images and I particularly like the ones of the youngsters in “full rig” in the rickshaw. Utterly charming.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Fergy, great to hear from you 🙂 And thanks for your kind words about my photos! I’d be happy to chat cameras when I see you next month, and to bring my bridge camera along (if you remind me!) but really, it’s not all about the camera 🙂 You get a lot of good shots with your compact and I’d also be happy to make some suggestions about a little bit of editing which would probably help you get more satisfied with your results!

  • Marsha

    The Japanese children are so beautiful. the seven-year-old girl was especially lovely with her hair fixed for the occasion. She did look very solemn. Amazing that the parents allowed you to photograph them. Once again, I love the colors. .

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Marsha 🙂 I think the parents were very proud of their children, but in any case I have found in many eastern countries there is a general willingness to be photographed, sometimes (as in India) even a keenness to be so!

      • Marsha

        They are so beautiful and their clothes are so colorful. I usually don’t run into problems photographing children when I’m here in the States, and I never get a model release, although I should. My dad always did even before the times were as litigious as they are today.

  • maristravels

    What a lovely post, Sarah, and such lovely pictures. Apart from the children, that glorious red acer is worthy of a prize. You got a lot out of that holiday, didn’t you. Very enjoyable.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Mari 🙂 Yes, we did a lot on this trip – it was rather a whistle-stop tour by our standards and we packed a lot in. I’ve barely scratched the surface it terms of blog material!!

  • Terri Webster Schrandt

    This is a perfect post to celebrate childhood, Sarah! Japan seems to be a country that reveres and respects their children given the history and its now aging society. Your images and explanations made me feel like I was right there watching and celebrating with the young children. We hosted a high school student from Japan a few years ago through our church for two weeks. Even she was formal and polite until she introduced us to her favorite Japanese shows on Netflix. Then we saw her playful side! I love Japanese traditions and enjoyed reading!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Terri 🙂 I love Japanese traditions too and I agree, they do really respect their children. But I think that extends to a general respect for other people – they are very protective of their elderly too, for instance 🙂

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