Shichi-go-san (The 7-5-3 Festival)


5 Year Old Boy in Hakama

3 Year Old with her Candy

I happened to be at a flea market last weekend which took place near Hakozaki Shrine.  Besides all the wonderful trinkets, antiques and crafts to look at, all these adorable children were dressed up in beautiful traditional outfits.  I then remembered that this was the time of year when most families take their young children to the shrine for blessings.  I started taking pictures as the families made their way to the shrine.

The festival is called Shichi-go-san (7-5-3).  It is celebrated by parents when their children turn 3, 5 and 7 years old.  Odd numbers in Japan are considered lucky, and these early years are considered critical for a child.  It’s basically a day to pray for the healthy growth of your child and to wish them a long and happy life.  The original date of the festival was November 15th, but now it happens anytime during the month of November (I’ve even seen it occur during other times of the year).  It all started some 1300 years ago, but back then only the families of nobles and samurai participated.  Commoners didn’t start taking their children until the Edo Period (1600-1860).

7 Year Old Girl in Her First Obi

Girls aged 3 and 7 get to dress in kimono.  At age 7, the girl is allowed to wear an obi for the first time.  Boys get to go at the age of 5 and get to wear haori jackets and hakama (pleated, but divided) trousers for the first time in public.  I asked the parents of one of the boys if I could take his picture, and he was so excited and proud.  He immediately started showing off his outfit front and back.

The family takes the child to a shrine where they pay a priest to say some prayers.  After the ceremony is over it is customary for the parents to buy long sticks of hard candy (chitose-ame) for the child which is placed in a bag decorated with cranes and turtles (cranes and turtles symbolize longevity).  My last stop before heading home that day was the shrine and I was able to get a few more pictures of some children – including a 3 year old girl whose parents were teaching her to make a peace sign.  She eventually got it and she was so happy!

Shichi-go-san Festival

Their outfits are incredibly beautiful, and I’ve seen the astronomical prices of some in the kimono shops.  It use to be a very expensive occasion for families, but now most families just rent the outfits for a much more reasonable cost.


Karatsu Kunchi Festival

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Karatsu Kunchi Festival

Karatsu is normally a quiet, laid-back fishing town.  You don’t go there for entertainment or excitement.  The exception to that rule is their annual Kunchi Festival.  Having missed the Nagasaki Kunchi Festival in October, I didn’t want to miss this one…especially since this one has been happening for about 400 years (about 50 years longer).  The 3 day festival features 14 large floats (called hikiyama) which are pulled through the streets of the city and eventually through the sand before being put back in their resting place near the shrine.   The largest float is over 22 feet tall and weighs almost 3 tons.  The floats range in age from 120 to almost 200 years old.  All of them are made of clay and wood, layered with hundreds of sheets of washi paper and linen, then covered with lacquer and finished with gold and silver leaf.  I was particularly impressed by whatever it was they used for the ‘hair’.

Robert unfortunately had to work, so I went to the festival with a friend.  We took the morning express train (which takes about an hour to get there), and by the time we got on the train, all the seats were already taken, so we had to stand.  At least we weren’t squished in there like sardines….except for the last 3 or 4 stops.  As we approached the city we could see the floats on the other side of town, so we arrived at the perfect time.

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As we made our way through the crowded train station, we could hear the flutes, drums and chanting (Enya! Enya!)….which continued non-stop the whole time we were there (and which continued in my head for the next couple days).  I almost didn’t recognize the town.  It was crowded, but not overwhelming so.   There were street vendors everywhere….and it smelled heavenly.   We walked a few blocks into town and managed to land a front row spot on the street.  After only a few minutes, the first festival participants and float made their way around the corner.  Every team’s traditional outfits were different as were each of their floats (fish, samurai helmet, dragons, lions, etc).  The pace they moved these massive things was impressive.  Sometimes the float would come around the corner so quickly it looked like it was about to flip over.  The whole event actually reminded me a lot of the festival I saw in San Miguel (Mexico). The participants were of all ages and everyone was having a great time.  It’s wonderful to see local communities participating with such energy and passion…it’s better than watching a Vegas show (plus it’s free).  We also noticed the whole event was being televised live (aired across Japan and other parts of Asia).  The shops in town were also playing it for those who had to work.

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After we watched all the floats go through the center of town, we tried to make our way toward the beach.  There is a spot near the beach in which they pull the floats through the sand and then line them all up (which is the highlight of the festival).  It ends up this block of sand was not very large.  There was no way all the spectators were going to fit into this area.  It was enough of a challenge making our way through the crowds of people to get down there, but I must admit, the hardest part of getting there, was resisting the temptation of the food booths we passed on the way (especially since it was now lunch time).   We eventually found a “back entrance” to the sand event.   We watched about 1/2 of it all from the far end of the “arena”, and even though there wasn’t arena seating, we still had a fairly good view of the action, since we were taller than most Japanese.

Basically, as the float approached the arena, they would come speeding into the sand as fast as they could (one of the guys on top of the float actually fell off due to the resistance he meet upon entering the sand).  Then the team would pull the float into it’s position.  It was like watching a long tug-of-war match…the float against it’s team…each float took about 10 minutes to line up.  I was getting tired just watching them.

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A combination of hunger and heat (it was an extremely warm day for this time of year) eventually made us give up our spot in exchange for shade and nourishment.  We made our way back through the massive crowds to the food stalls and ended up having some BBQ chicken balls for lunch – they were divine. 🙂   After failing to find ice cream  🙁 , we eventually made our way back to the train station and found the shortest line to stand in (so as to assure we had seats on the way back – that was a smart move).  If we’re here next year, I’ll come again – maybe to watch the night parade when the floats are adorned with glowing lanterns – and hopefully Robert will be able to join me.

Sisters’ Visit: Takeo and Nagasaki

Japanese Dinner

Our Japanese Dinner

We arrived at our Japanese Hotel later than we probably should have for check in.  It was 6pm, but the staff was extremely gracious and they were more than happy to accommodate our request for a 7:30 dinner.  After some tea and treats in the lobby (which are usually served in the room), they showed us to our tatami room where we unpacked and relaxed while having a few drinks.  I’m sure they giggled when they saw that we brought our own pillows (sorry, we are just not fans of those buckwheat pillows).  Since it was already pretty late, we didn’t have time for the onsen, but we put our yakatas on anyway.  It wasn’t long before our dinner server was there loading up our table with TONS of food: soups, appetizers, sushi, sashimi, and all the makings for shabu, shabu.  I ate everything, it was fantastic (especially the shabu, shabu).  I really thought we were done, but then she arrived with grilled fish, fried fish, more soups and sides, and some mixture to help congeal the remaining shabu shabu broth.  As full as we all were, we tried a little bit of everything, but there was no way we could finish it all.  Finally she came by one more time with dessert – a crepe filled with cream, strawberries and kiwi.  There was no way I wasn’t going to eat that though.  YUM!  Immediately after dinner they cleaned everything up and laid out the futons.  We had internet access finally, so we Skyped our families and then went to bed to the sound of rain.

Azalea Heaven

Amazing Azalea Garden

Morning arrived in a blink.  We headed downstairs for breakfast.  It was hard to imagine eating breakfast since it literally felt like I just had dinner.  We were wondering how they can eat so much food and still stay thin.  Our Japanese breakfast consisted of lots of little bite-sized dishes, some rice, egg, nori, fruit and yogurt and a little grill to grill your own fish.   Surprisingly we were able to eat quite a bit.  This place must have the world’s smallest coffee cups…like from a child’s play tea set.

Immediately after breakfast, we headed outside for the garden next to the hotel, since the entry fee was included in the room price.  The rain had finally stopped, but we took our umbrellas with us just in case.  We walked down the hill and through the big entry gate.  I immediately knew I was going to like this place.  I’m sure this place is beautiful in full sun, but with the low clouds and everything still wet it was quite magical.  I kept thinking how beautiful this place would be in the fall too.  In the distance I could see some wisteria as we walked along the edge of the little lake.  We eventually made our way to the crown center of the garden.  At the foot of this granite mountain was something that looked like it came out of a children’s story book….there were hundreds of azalea bushes of every color everywhere – like little mounds of ice cream.  We all felt giddy, totally amazed by the sight in front of us.  We almost got lost in there and we couldn’t stop snapping pictures.  Before exiting we had to pass the wisteria and, though not in full bloom, it was so beautiful and smelled so good I didn’t want to leave.  We all love gardens, and this was one of the loveliest we’ve ever seen.


Visiting Dejima

We headed back up to the hill and after a quick photo of all us in front of our hotel, we were on the road to Nagasaki.  It was an interesting drive, because we went through more tunnels than I ever imagined there could be in one place.  At least half the distance to Nagasaki was tunnels…huge, long tunnels.  Even our final approach into downtown was a long tunnel.  After that last tunnel, we literally only had to drive for two kilometers through the city before we reached our hotel.  It was only 11am, and we couldn’t check in until 2pm, but they held onto our bags while we went out to explore the city.  Robert met up with us at the hotel…he got there about 10 minutes before us.  We all hopped on a street car to nearly the last stop on that line and just started walking up and down (and up and down) all the streets.  Our goal was to stop at all the places highlighted on our bare bones map (it’s amazing we found anything).  All the steep hills reminded us a little of San Francisco.

Our first stop was where the first Catholic Church was built in Japan….it’s now a temple.  We ended up walking through several shrines and temples.  We eventually found the main walking street (which was pretty quiet on a Sunday).  It was around here we shopped in a few antique stores and had lunch (steamed eel) at a little local restaurant.  After visiting the Spectacles Bridge, Shianbashi street, and Chinatown, we headed for the wharf area and had some drinks to relax.  A little before 7pm, we had our free taxi ride up to Inasayama for the night view of Nagasaki.  Even though it was a little hazy, it was still an amazing view.

Dontaku Parade Performers

Dontaku Festival Parade

The next morning, Robert left to go back to Fukuoka right after breakfast, and us girls went out to find Oura Church, Glover Gardens, Holland Street, the Western Home sites and, of course, do some more shopping.  While the Japanese seemed really interested in all the ‘western’ stuff, we weren’t (we see this all the time), so we headed back down to the wharf area to check out Dejima.  This turned out to be a really interesting place – about a very important part of Japan’s history.  While just a replica of the island village that once stood in the same exact location, it is extremely well done.  The village itself used to be an island in the harbor, but with all the land reclamation projects it is now in the city along one of the canals.  Much of Japan’s modern history started on that little island, and we all found it quite fascinating.  This is a must visit for anyone interested in Japan opening it’s doors to world commerce.

It was now late afternoon, so we headed back to Fukuoka, and that is were we spent our last day together.  We had dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant, went downtown to do some shopping, ate some more food at the stalls in the park, and watched some of the Dontaku Festival.  Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head for the airport.  🙁   I guess all good things do have to come to an end.

Sisters’ Visit: Kumamoto & Arita Pottery Festival

Spouts from Both Sides

Tsujunkyo Bridge

Friday we leisurely drove to Kumamoto by taking back roads and stopping every time something interested us.  The roads were curvy and narrow but not too bad.  It was only scary when a bus was coming from the opposite direction.  We were driving through canyons most of the time, so there were not many views around us other than whatever river we were following.  Any wide area seemed to have a town or rest stop.  We stopped one time to try and find some waterfall, but the path down nearly required climbing equipment (an elevator would have been best), so we ditched that idea.  Next we stopped in a pretty area where they sold gifts and had some food stalls.  We shopped a bit and had some coffee and french fries (sold in a popcorn cup).  We had a fairly large Japanese breakfast buffet at our Japanese Inn, so we really weren’t that hungry yet.

We continued on our way.  A last minute decision had us trying to find some bridge that spouts water from both sides.  It’s not well marked, so we were about to turn around figuring we’d never find it, when all of a sudden there it was and we pulled over.  There wasn’t any water coming out, but lots of people were hanging out looking like they were waiting for something.  It was a pretty area and the weather was perfect, so we thought we’d wait and see if it was like Old Faithful and went off every hour.  Sure enough, about 10 minutes later, water started gushing out of the holes in the center of the bridge from both sides.  We could hear it from where we were.  Though fairly far away, we really had a great viewing spot.  It was fun to watch and listening to everyone ooh and ah just added to the entertainment.

Front of Castle

Kumamoto Castle

We were back on the road in no time and the traffic started getting heavier as we approached Kumamoto.  Driving downtown proved to be quite a challenge, since in addition to cars, bikes and pedestrians there were also streetcars and one way roads.  We passed our hotel since we couldn’t make a right into the valet parking.   Our voice navigation system had stopped since she “arrived at our destination”, so we had to figure out ourselves how to get back to the hotel.  We ended up taking some one way side streets to the back entrance (service entrance) and eventually found their basement parking.  I was pretty happy my sister was driving and not me. 🙂  We couldn’t check in until 2pm, so we had a lite lunch in the lobby while we relaxed and talked for 30 minutes.  We checked-in, admired the fabulous view of the castle from our room, and then walked down to the castle to meander around the grounds.  The old turret was the most interesting to me, followed by the newly reconstructed grand hall.  A rather energetic middle age women was our private guide – I think she was excited to practice her English with us.  A “samurai” took our picture, he lived in Alabama for a while and he was very friendly too.   The castle grounds are quite extensive and it took us almost 3 hours to see everything.  We walked back through town and up and down their shopping streets.  We eventually bought some wine to share in our hotel before we had dinner.

At Arita Pottery Festival

Arita Pottery Festival

The next morning we hoped to get some breakfast at Starbucks, but they didn’t open until 8am (very typical in Japan), so we left.  On our way out of town we visited the Suizenji Garden which represents the 51 stations from Tokyo to Kyoto.  It was very artistically done, but much smaller than I had envisioned.  That ended up being a good thing, since we had a ways to go to get to Arita for the pottery festival.  Traffic was now noticeably heavier on the expressways, but we never went slower than 80 km/h.  The landscape eventually became hilly and full of trees.  Approaching Arita and having no idea where to park or where the festival actually was, we figured the train station was a good place to park…and we were right.  We only had to walk a block to get to the main street.  It was nowhere near as crowded as everyone had told me it would be.  It was an overcast, misty day, so maybe some people chose not to come that day.

I’ve never seen so much pottery in one place in all my life.  It must have gone on for two miles.  A huge range of pottery was represented from the mass produced 100 yen stuff to the expensive porcelain.   Amongst all the pottery were some food stalls, so throughout the day, we ate – okonomiyaki, fried chicken, and ice cream.  We shopped until ‘closing time’ when they opened the street to cars.  I would definitely return – maybe for their fall pottery fair.  This town seems to have lots of character and it is in a beautiful area.  Our English GPS guide was on the blitz that evening (probably from the rain).  She had us going in circles to get out of town… nearly getting us stuck on a train track in the process.  Alas, we made it out of there safely and to our Japanese Hotel.

Daisaitogomaku “Fire” Festival

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Atago Fire Festival

Robert had some work to catch up on today, so I went with a couple of other teachers to our local shrine (Atago) to see it’s biggest festival.  There is not a lot of information about it in English other than “it is a fire festival during which participants overcome adversities and purify their souls by walking barefoot on burning coals”.   How could you not want to go see that?  We got there early so we could watch the whole ceremony from beginning to end.  It lasted 2 1/2 hours.  There was a young shrine “helper” who spoke some English that explained a few things to us.  We bought some long wooden sticks and wrote our ‘dreams and wishes’ on them.  He informed us that they would eventually be thrown into the bonfire where the ‘prayer’ could make it’s way to heaven.

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Burning of the Prayers

The festival started with chanting and singing, and then a procession of the Shinto priests into the shrine hall for prayer.  They eventually made their way out of the hall, where one priest cut the rope surrounding the ceremonial grounds with his sword so all the priests could enter.  This was followed by a series of priests (in pairs) performing different rituals to prepare for the bonfire.  Arrows were shot in four different directions, axes were swung around the burn pile, and a series of other blessings (both verbal and physical) were performed until the torches were blessed and lit.  The head priest sang from his scroll and the pile was set on fire.  Then the drumming and chanting began.  This went on for about an hour while the fire burned.  The crowd (including me) was allowed to throw the wooden prayers into the fire.   The priests attended to the flames…allowing it to burn, yet keeping it under control with holy water.  The constant rhythm of the drums and chanting was almost hypnotizing.  The priests had large wooden prayers which were thrown in last.  The fire was finally allowed to die down.  The priests then began raking the coals and spreading them out.  Finally, a pathway was created through the center of the hot coals using a large bamboo tree trunk.

Fire Festival (Daisaitou Gomaku)

Walking on the Coals

The observers started taking off their socks and shoes. Our shrine ‘helper’ informed us it was OK for us to walk across if we wanted.  The priests and priestesses went across first, then the observers – of all ages.  Maureen decided she was going to walk on the coals.  I thought about crossing it, but I figured my soul doesn’t need any purifying :).  Actually, I would definitely do it next year if Robert is interested in seeing it.  After the last participant finished the walk, we watched the priests put out the rest of the flames.  The day was still young, so I even had time to head out and do some Christmas shopping.

Ramen and the Lantern Festival

Ramen Dinner

Ipudo – Spicy Ramen

I have been reading about the famous Fukuoka Ramen since March.  It has been high on my list of to-do’s since we arrived.  So when I heard a group of teachers were going to have Ramen before going to the Lantern festival, there was no way I was going to turn that down.  We all met at the Muromi Subway station and then biked up the river a ways and through town until we came to Ippudo.  The original restaurant is somewhere downtown…this was just one of their branches.  They actually have branches all over Japan, and in a few other locations including Singapore and one in New York City.  I ordered the ‘Famous Ramen’ in the red bowl, and Robert ordered the ‘Spicy Ramen’ in the white bowl.  It was so good and we ate it so fast, we almost didn’t get a picture of it.  I wish I could make this stuff at home.  We also got to try their gyozas (which are little dumplings filled with ground pork, cabbage, garlic, and green onions).  They too were fantastic.  I’d go back just to eat those.  I love ’em.  This place more than lived up to my expectations and we will shall return!

Lantern Festival by the River

Sunny loves the Lanterns

After dinner, we rode our bikes down the river trail until we couldn’t go any further (since it was blocked off for the festival).  We parked our bikes and headed down the trail to check out the local lantern festival.  I always enjoyed looking at the lighted lanterns that lined people’s driveways during Christmas in Arizona.  But now I’m spoiled.  This was quite impressive.  There were thousands of little lanterns lined up on both sides of the river walk and set up to make all kinds of designs.  I can only imagine how much time and effort went into setting this up.  Little tea lights were in bags of all colors: white, blue, red, yellow, orange, and some bags were hand drawn by the local children.  It was an absolutely perfect evening for strolling down the path, taking pictures, people watching, having a beer and just hanging out.  A good time was had by all, but I think Sunny probably enjoyed it the most.

Our First Festival in Japan

Stalls along entrance to the Shrine

Robert at the Hojoya Festival

We almost didn’t go to the Hojoya festival.  It was cloudy; it had just finished raining; it was already 12:30pm; and we had just eaten lunch.  We could have easily talked ourselves into staying home, but I packed up our rain gear and the camera, and we headed out the door.  I had only read about it in the Fukuoka Now magazine yesterday, and I wasn’t even really sure how to get there, but I acted like I did.  This place was not on my trusty map, but I couldn’t tell Robert that, because he wouldn’t have gone (not true – I would have :)).  I had a vague idea where it was after looking at a Google map, and I figured out the rest while in the subway station waiting for the train.  We had to transfer to another subway line about halfway there, and I kept reminding myself to ‘just follow all the people’….and it worked!  We emerged from the subway station and Voila! we were right in the midst of the festival.  How cool is that.

Stalls along entrance to the Shrine

Lots of Yakitori

There were stalls everywhere.  Oh, how I wish I hadn’t eaten lunch!  We walked up and down the street looking at all the tasty foods…yakitori (grilled chicken), takoyaki (fried octopus dumpling), grilled corn, stir-fries, mochis, chocolate covered bananas, sweet potato fries, fresh ginger, chestnuts, and endless amounts of other stuff that smelled divine.  There were also booths with all kinds of toys for the kids to take home and some with games for kids to play (with live little turtles and goldfish).  It was interesting just watching what everyone was doing.  You could hear the kids blowing into little toys that looked and sounded like birds, others were playing with big plastic swords and blow-up Miss Kitty dolls.  A few people were even dressed in their yukatas (casual cotton kimonos).

Hakozakigu Shrine

Procession at Hakozakigu Shrine

We eventually made our way into the shrine to see what was going on in there.  On one side was a theatrical performance of some kind that we watched for a few minutes, and on the other side, some Shinto monks were preparing for their procession to bring sweets to the gods.  We watched them go into the shrine and do whatever it is Shinto monks do (chanting, etc).  We then walked around the interior of the courtyard and found some beautiful flower/plant arrangements, displays of champons (glass ornaments), ohajiki (small ceramic game pieces), and other interesting items.  We walked around a bit more, and then headed back.  It was a good thing we left when we did…had we stayed too much longer, we would have been drenched!

Hakozakigu Shrine

Hakozaki History

For you history buffs…the Hokozaki Shrine has an interesting background.  According to several Fukuoka Tourism websites, it was founded around 923.  In the 13th century, the mongols twice tried to invade Japan, and both times their forces were decimated by heavy storms, which they referred to as ‘kamikazes” (divine winds), which they believed were a result of the the divine protection offered by this shrine.  This led to many important Japanese military leaders visiting this shrine in later years.  I wonder if this is where the WWII term for the pilots came from?   The main sanctuary eventually had to be rebuilt in 1546.  This is one of three major shrines in Japan dedicated to Hachiman (the god of war and protector of Japan), and it is now a ‘nationally-designated important cultural property.’  The Emperor Ojin, the Empress Jingu and Princess Tamayori are all enshrined in the Hakozaki Shrine.  I might have to come back in early January for their other festival in which young men run around in loincloths chasing after a wooden ball….now that I gotta see!