The shichi-go-san festival takes place on November 15th and honors the Japanese custom of celebrating a child’s growth at the ages of three, five, and seven. On that day you’ll see formally dressed children with their parents and grandparents at most Shinto shrines throughout the country. The festival began as a custom in samurai families during the Edo period, but it became more widespread after the Meiji period.
Here in the commercial district of Hakata, it is customary to hold the o-zen suwari, during which an auspicious day is chosen for three-year olds to select their own food for the first time. Until that date, the children are served food by their parents. On this day, however, the children use chopsticks and take meals on their own. Traditional trays are called zen, and the smaller trays for children are called poppo zen. These are cute square trays made of unfinished wood, to which legs are attached. They are decorated with propitious designs, such as pine, bamboo, and plum, as well as cranes and tortoises. The word poppo represents the crane, as young children first learning how to speak refer to birds as poppo.
The poppo zen are one of the Hakata magemono, a famous local product made in the Maidashi district of Higashi Ward in Fukuoka City. Thin strips of cedar and cypress are placed in hot water to soften them, and then the wood is shaped and bound with the bark of a cherry tree. This woodworking art is said to have developed to make festival implements formally used at the Hakozaki-miya shrine near Maidashi. It later came to be used to make items for the home, including rice tubs and bento boxes. It is still a popular folk handicraft, though items made in this way are rather expensive.
The foods served in the poppo zen are indispensable for this celebrations, including red beans and rice, namasu (a raw fish, vinegar, and vegetable salad with daikon and carrots) and whole fish. The rice bowls are lacquerware; those for boys are black on the outside and crimson on the inside, while those for girls are crimson inside and out. This custom is still practiced in some old commercial families today. In the past, parents used the poppo zen to teach their children table manners, how to use chopsticks, and how to remove the bones from fish.
Another shichi-go-san custom is the confection known as chitose ame. The long candy represents the parents’ wish for a long life for their child. Today, the people at Hello Kitty make many different varieties of chitose ame.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn131, Nov. 2009)