Japan has many wonderful holidays that involve going to shrines and temples. For the foreigner living here, the opportunity to partake of these festivities always ends with satisfaction. There is so much to be learned about the Japanese culture just by enjoying such events.
One of these important events is called “Hatsumode (初詣),” the first Shinto shrine visit of the Japanese New Year in the first 3 days of January. While it sounds quite calm, if you do join in Hatsumode, be prepared for a whirlwind of energy.
The ritual behind Hatsumode is rooted deep in Shinto beliefs. Ever since the induction of the traditional Chinese calendar, the Japanese have been visiting both shrines and temples during the New Year. Hatsumode is thus a blend of ancient practices and modern day delicacies that attracts millions to the famous shrines.
Because Hatsumode is so important, lines begin developing at shrines the day before. People bundle up, bring some spare change for food stall treats, and spend all day queued in the line to visit the shrine. During this time, you can hear the “joya no kane (除夜の鐘),” a bell that tolls 108 times before midnight on the 1st of the New Year to purify humans souls and ward off evils.
How to Offer Your Hatsumode Prayers
Obviously, anyone who is visiting Japan during the New Year celebrations or who is living here will want to get some attention from the deities. Hatsumode pays strict attention to the proper way to visit the shrine. Because of these upheld traditions, you should take great care in how you enter, exit, and conduct yourself on the shrine or temple grounds.
When visiting a Shinto shrine, you should do the following things:
- Upon arriving at the shrine, there will be a torii gate. Bow slightly before entering.
- Since the middle of the pathway leading to the shrine is said to be for the gods only, you should stick close to the edges.
- You will eventually see a fountain of some sort beset with ladles. Here, you cleanse yourself–but you need to do so properly. First, hold the ladle in your right hand. Pour some water into your left palm to rinse. Switch hands and do the same. Next, pour more into your left hand and rinse out your mouth. It’s okay to spit it into the pool near your feet (just don’t swallow). Lastly, tilt the ladle slightly so the remaining water runs down the handle then put it back the way you found it.
- Once you go to the place where you offer your prayers, there are a couple of steps to follow. First, you ring the bell (if there is one) and throw in your offering money. Then you bow twice to the altar. Clap twice immediately afterwards, leaving your palms pressed together as you pray. Once you’re done with your prayer, bow once more and walk away.
- When you leave the grounds, bow once again to the main gate to thank the gods.
Temples are bit different in their cleansing practices. For example, Senso-ji has a bunch of incense for you to waft. However, the two bows, two claps, and bow process is the same. When in doubt, stand back and watch how everyone moves around you before trying it yourself.
Before or after you pray, you can always get an omikuji (おみくじ) fortune slip. There are various types of omikuji. Some of them are standard slips of paper that are received after shaking a box with numbered mikuji sticks. Others can be drawn from a box like a lottery number. In total, there are seven types of fortune that you can receive:
● 吉 (kichi) or “blessing.”
● 凶 (kyou) or “curse.”
● 小凶 (shokyou) or “small curse.”
● 半凶 (hankyou) or “half curse.”
● 大凶 (daikyou) or “great curse.”
I personally usually draw a curse, though on a recent trip to Hokkaido shrine, I drew a “Great Blessing.” Some omikuji are written in both Japanese and English, depending on how popular the location is with foreigners. You will find that your fortune even goes into detail about things like work, marriage, and health.
If you find that you’ve drawn a less than desirable fortune, you can null it by tying the paper to a line or metal rod (seek out the appropriate place). You might also want to purchase an omamori, or good luck charm. These even make wonderful present for your loved ones.
Sure, you can go pay your respects to the gods at a smaller, less glorified shrine and beat the mind blowingly long lines. Or, you can go to the most popular hatsumode spots and see millions gather for their first prayer. Here are some of the best hatsumode spots in Japan:
Meiji Shrine – Tokyo
This vast shrine complex is located in Shibuya, right near the Meijijingu-mae exit for the Fukutoshin and Chiyoda lines or the Harajuku station for Yamanote line. Meiji Shrine has been popular with the locals for many years, and despite being in the heart of busy Harajuku, the grounds remain a quiet respite. However, during Hatsumode, this shrine can see up to 3 million visitors on New Year’s Day alone. At least the shrine is open all day and night to make sure everyone gets their Hatsumode prayers heard.
Sensoji Temple – Tokyo
It is estimated that nearly 2.9 million people visit Sensoji Temple for Hatsumode annually. The best time to be at the temple is midnight on New Year’s Eve so you can hear the melodious “joya no kane” bells ringing out. A special “ofuda” charm is also for sale only from January 1st to the 7th. Plus, Nakamise Dori gets a makeover around Christmas and New Years Eve, so if you don’t feel like waiting in line, you can always shop til you drop.
Yasukuni Shrine – Tokyo
In Tokyo, one of the less crowded places to go for Hatsumode is Shinjuku’s Yasukuni Shrine. Usually, visitor numbers top off around 250,000, and with the shrine expecting visitors all night New Year’s Eve, you can get a jump on Hatsumode (and still have time to visit other spots). One of the main reasons to check out Yasukuni Shrine is for the decorations. Hundreds of ema, or wooden tablets, are hung, and there is a rainbow of Japanese kites. Plus, you have a chance to see live Noh performances near the main building.
Zozoji Temple – Tokyo
Being that this temple lies at the foot of Tokyo Tower, it generally sees a lot of visitors from around the globe. The best part is this: you can purchase a ticket for JPY 2,000 to get a chance at ringing the Joya no Kane bell. And it comes with other presents! Also, Zozoji is a rather festive place for Hatsumode, with street food stalls popping up from New Year’s Eve to January 3rd.
Fushimi Inari Shrine – Kyoto
This shrine is famous for the winding paths covered with rows upon rows of bright orange torii gates. Fushimi Inari Shrine was also recently the focal point of an anime called “Inari Kon-Kon Iroha.” These stunning sacred grounds are pleasant, even with the hordes of people lined up along the torii-covered paths to reach the main shrine. With over 2.5 million visitors for Hatsumode each year, Fushimi Inari-taisha is the most-visited shrine in Kansai.
Heian Jingu – Kyoto
Heian Jingu only has about 100 years of history under its belt, making it the youngest shrine on this list. However, the shrine has been popular since its erection in 1895 as a commemoration of the 1100th anniversary of Kyoto’s foundation. For Hatsumode, around 200,000 people gather here. Thus it is substantially less crowded than the other popular Hatsumode spots in Kyoto and may be perfect for those who dislike throngs of people.
Kitan Tenmangu – Kyoto
Want to be entertained while you wait in a line of up to 500,000 Hatsumode visitors? Check out Kitan Tenmangu, an off-the-wall shrine with a huge gate and a gathering spot for local, and oftentimes odd, musical performances.
Sumiyoshi Shrine – Osaka
Many people call Sumiyoshi Shrine the Osaka brother of Meiji Shrine. The grounds and shrine itself are fabulous, and during the New Year become a prized photo opportunity. Around Hatsumode, Sumiyoshi Shrine goes from tranquil to positively crazy with people. The instant you get off the train, you will literally be in the queue to get to the shrine.
Hokkaido Jinja – Sapporo
This shrine is the biggest and most popular in Sapporo. It is always bustling with weddings or some event, like Shichi-go-san. Despite Hokkaido being super cold on January 1st, people line up regardless of the chill for a chance at bowing twice, clapping twice, and bowing again. Since Hokkaido Shrine is located near Maruyama Park, you can make a day of the adventure and go check out the zoo, walk the trails, and see the wondrous shrine.
In short, Hatsumode is all about visiting the shrine at the beginning of the year and is usually paired with crazy waiting lines, street food, and other traditional Shinto activities. You don’t have to necessarily wait forever to enjoy Hatsumode either. Simply walking around festive shrine and temple grounds is a wonderful way to start a new year in Japan off right!
By Valerie Taylor
東京都在住。太陽光発電に関する企業で通訳・翻訳、 国際関係業務を勤めている。 また、ダンスと忍術を訓練している。
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