On the weekends closest to November 15, this august and imposing shrine …

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Becomes host to this.

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November 15 is Shichigosan No Hi, literally Seven-Five-Three Day, when children aged 3, 5 and 7 are brought to a Shinto shrine to give thanks for their growth and pray for continued health. What with modern-day work schedules, though, parents usually find the time to do so only on the weekends closest to the 15th, and I even snapped one mother and child at the Meiji Jingu in Tokyo in December. Luckily enough, Cathy and I found a nice apartment to stay in just ten minutes’ walk from the Heian Jingu shrine, one of Kyoto’s major shrines and a very popular one for Shichigosan. Since the morning after we checked in was a Saturday, we decided to check it out.

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It was a pleasant walk to the shrine from our place to Heian Shrine, through ginkgo-lined avenues gently raining golden leaves, past the Kyoto City Zoo and through the enormous vermilion torii that Heian Shrine is best known for. The O-Torii is still quite a walk away from the shrine proper, as Okazaki Park lies between them. As we walked from the torii to the shrine we passed bazaar stalls being set up, with an interesting range of crafts and a devilishly tempting aroma of baked goods and coffee rising. There were quite a few food stalls, the majority specialized in sweet treats; they knew who their customers would be today!

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Soon enough, the stars of the day started to arrive. Strictly speaking, Shichigosan no Hi is not a festival for tourists, but the families don’t mind your being there as long as you don’t get in the way or act like a creep. Many welcomed the interaction, and of course toting cameras as we were, we got asked to take family photos quite a bit. We were happy to oblige! I must’ve said “Kawaii desu ne (How cute)” a hundred times or more in one morning, and meant it.

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I guess with Japan’s ageing population and declining birth rate kids are as precious as when Shichigosan began to be celebrated, back in medieval times when infant mortality was so high that children who made it to these ages were counted lucky. Doting grandparents proudly led their grandkids by the hand, both dressed in the finest kimono. You could see how special the event was by how much the families had splurged to dress up. Those kimono are really works of art!

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It was also fun to see many of the kids twirling and admiring themselves, or walking funny, it being their first time to ever wear kimono (or hakama and haori, for the boys). We saw one camera-loving dad teaching his daughters the steps of a traditional odori dance. One brother lovingly led his little sister through the mouth-and-hand-washing ritual every Shintoist must do on entering a shrine. Hand in hand with their elders, the kids were instructed by a Shinto priest on what they must do at the ceremony itself.

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This ceremony was done in the shrine’s inner precincts, and off-limits to us tourists. Still, Cathy and I felt privileged to witness this celebration of family bonds and childhood. For us it was really Japan’s cutest day.

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