Shi-go-san is one of my favorite Japanese rituals. It the a ritual that takes place when boys turning 3 or 5, and girls turning 3 or 7. It is traditionally celebrations to mark a childs advancement in age. Children are dressed up in special clothes and the whole family usually visits a shrine to take part in a special ceremony. Traditionally it takes place on November 15th every year and it has been going on since sometime in the Heian period (794-1185 A.D.) when it was reserved for court nobles. Later it became common even with the samurai class and in the recent period (starting in 1868 with emperor Meiji) it started being common in all classes of people. Although November 15th is the traditional date people do it more or less sometime around that time, sometimes months late or early: it is more important to be able to gather the entire family than to hit the correct date and in our modern times people really are too busy.
Back in the old days all children had shaved heads before the age of three so in the ceremony marked the day when the children could start growing their hair. At five boys would start wearing the hakama (a sort of kimono like trouser) and the girls would start wearing proper kimono with obi (the belt) at seven.
I took the first three of these photos at Tokyo’s famous Meiji Shrine in Shibuya Ward, and the last two at the Yushima Tenjin in Bunkyo Ward. The first girl with the absolutely adorable smile was very shy when she saw me with my camera.
Most of the branches of Kagura dance (the ritualistic dances and performances you see performed at native Japanese shrines and festivals as well as the imperial court) are ancient, many have been performed so long that their roots disappear well into mythological times. One branch however, the Urayasu dance (浦安の舞) of the Mikokagura (Kagura performed by shrine maidens, miko), is an absolute newcomer, having only started in 1940. In order to celebrate the 2600 year anniversary of the imperial lineage (this number is controversial among historians since many of the earlier emperors are considered semi-mythological) it was decided that shrine maidens all over the country (including the ones in Taiwan and Korea) should perform a ceremonial dance to be known as Urayasu. “Ura” is the ancient Japanese word for heart, and “Yasu” is one of the ancient terms used to name the country (I think). On November 10th at 10:00 all shrines performed this ceremony simultaneously. The tradition of the dance has lived on since then, but it is now performed during regular festivals at any time during the year. The costumes are some of the most complicated and it is only in recent years that shrines have been able to raise the money to make enough costumes so that even very young dancers can wear them. I saw these young girls (maybe 11 years old?) perform the Urayasu at the Nezu shrine festival a couple of weeks ago, and the costumes looked a bit too large for them! There are some items associated to the dance, the bough, the bells and the blade, all purely ceremonial of course.
Some of the larger shrines sometimes have Mikokagura performances during wedding ceremonies, and some miko usually dress up in these costumes for parades, but if you have the chance to see a properly performed Urayasu dance, take it! They are not all that common!
Naturally I just had visit Yasukuni Shrine for the second day of the Shunkireitaisai, the main day. In the old days (any year during the more than 1000 year history of this ceremony) it was often attended by the emperor or one of his chosen representatives. Since 1978 however, the emperors of Japan has stopped visiting this shrine personally so the ceremony has to be performed without royal presence until their differences can be worked out. I am sure they will, some day in the future. The nicely dressed people are there to greet the ceremony as it makes its way to the heart of the shrine. The last day of the ceremony is on the 23rd of April, but I won’t be able to see that, unfortunately. It is a rare chance to be allowed to photograph these shinto ceremonies and I am happy I got to be there during these two days!
Every great shrine in Japan has a regular yearly festival, something called their “reisai”, so naturally one of the greatest shrines in the country, the Yasukuni shrine has two of them! One of which started yesterday, called the Shunkireitaisai, which means the Regular Spring Time Grand Festival, quite literally translated into English. It’s a three day event and yesterday they held the opening ritual in which a holy branch from a holy tree was presented to the inner sanctum and used to sanctify the attendants in the festival, in this case priests and a select few lay people, and even everyone who attended the ceremony, which included me! It’s the first time I have had this ritual performed on my although I have seen it from a distance dozens of times! Lucky me! Yesterday’s ceremony was only attended by about 50 people, a very small crowd, as the regular festival starts the following day, which would be today, the 22nd of April, and ends on the 23rd of April.
Usually, shinto priests and clergy aren’t very open to being photographed, so I have very few photos of priests in uniform since I don’t want to offend anyone, but on this occasion photography was allowed and I snapped away like there was no tomorrow! I hope you aren’t bored by the repetitive photos, all taken with my lovely prime lens, the 135mm at f2.8.