In Japan, there’s a saying that goes: “Japanese people are born into Shintoism, get married as Christians and die as Buddhists.” Usually it’s meant to be a comment on Japan’s laissez-faire attitude towards religion. However, having experienced all three of these life events in Japan, it’s a surprisingly accurate aphorism.

In the case of birth, after one month it’s common practice in Japan to take the baby a Shinto shrine for its Hatsumiyamairi (literally “first shrine visit”) often shortened to Omiyamairi. Like weddings and funerals, these ceremonies can differ greatly depending on the region, so I thought I’d share my own recent experience at an Omiyamairi to shed some light on this lesser-known Japanese tradition.

Making reservations

According to tradition the ceremony should be held 31 or 32 days after a boy is born and 32 or 33 days after a girl is born. However, this is not a strict rule at all and can be done any day depending on things like the weather or health of mother and child.

We made an appointment at a nearby shrine ahead of time. Often the price of the ceremony is listed somewhere on the shrine grounds. Depending on the shrine prices can vary from 3,000 yen to 10,000 yen (US$30-$100).

■ What to wear

Before entering the temple we had to get baby dressed. The rest of us just wore regular formal attire (suits etc.) but the baby had to wear a special bonnet and bib like collar that we rented from a photo studio. Since she’s a girl they were brightly colored pink and festively decorated. Then a type of kimono is draped over the baby and tied behind the back of the person holding her.


To complete the look, a kanji character is drawn on the forehead of the baby. This is surprisingly tricky as I learned that babies don’t seem to like people drawing on their heads and wriggle around quite a bit! It’s said that baby boys get a 大 (big) character to wish that they grow up big and strong, whereas girls get a 小 (small) to hope that they are delicate and modest.


Traditionally the father’s mother is supposed to hold the baby. In Japan, the postpartum is treated very delicately and mothers are encouraged to rest as much as possible during one month after childbirth so those duties were passed on to someone else. This isn’t really a strict custom any more either, and pretty much anyone who wants to can hold the baby.

■ Into the shrine

Like every day recently it was an especially hot and sunny day, but walking into the shrine it was surprisingly cool and comfortable. A Shinto priest greeted us inside. He was dressed in an orange robe similar to a kimono and a pointed black hat.


First the priest knelt on the tatami mat with his back to us in front of an altar with several items on top like oranges and sake. He began to chant for a couple minutes intermittently clapping loudly. I couldn’t make out what he was saying but I heard our names at one point. He seemed to stutter for a moment before saying my foreign name but it could have just been the rhythm of the chant.

■ The purification

He was also holding a flat wooden stick kind of like a large shoehorn. I later learned this was a shaku which was once an accessory in formal attire but is now only used by Shinto priests. This priest would occasionally put down the shaku and begin repositioning it in precise positions but very quickly. He would then pick it up and hold it vertically as he continued to chant.

onusaAfter the chanting, he picked up a stick with dozens of zigzag papers hanging from it. He then started to wave it firmly but not strongly from side to side in front of us all. This was an onusa that is used to purify people, places, and things of bad luck by waving it and creating a rather relaxing ruffling sound.

After another round of chanting the priest got up again and picked up another stick, this time with several bells hanging around it. He brought it close to the baby and began rattling it. I thought it would disturb the baby as it kind of freaked me out a little, but she didn’t seem to mind it at all. Much like the onusa bell-ringing is said to remove evil in Shinto, which I suppose means I’m slightly evil since it startled me a bit. bells

After another brief chant the priest then congratulated us and we handed over our payment. He gave us a smile and left out the back. The whole ceremony was probably only five to ten minutes long, which is good when you have a one-month old baby! That’s just about the limit they can stay awake without crying.

■ Presents!

As an added bonus the shrine gave us some swag! In the gift bag was a scroll, some sugar packets (no idea why) and a little ceramic snake with a bell in it since this is, of course, the year of the snake. Lucky charms were there too, like an ema, which is a wooden board that you can write a wish on and hang in the shrine to make it come true. There was also an omamori, a lucky card inside a little cloth bag that should never be opened thus torturing the inherently curious.

Finally there was a pair of chopsticks. They’re meant for the baby’s second ceremony which takes place 100 days after she was born, called Okuizomo which celebrates the first time a baby eats solid food. This is actually earlier than when babies can eat food so we just kind of pretend they can. They could change it, but why mess with tradition?

So, for the next few years my baby will be building up good luck and spiritual purification as a Shintoist. Meanwhile, I can dream of the day she becomes a happily married Christian (if it’s still in vogue in at that time), and hope that I never, ever have to see her become a Buddhist.

Photos: RocketNews24