If you watch Japanese programing, whether it’s anime or dramas, you’ve probably noticed a New Year’s tradition that’s as much a staple to their culture as singing Auld Lang Syne and getting a kiss is in western culture. The hatsumōde is the first Shinto shrine visit of the Japanese New Year. You can visit one right as the clock strikes midnight or in many cases visit on the first, second, or third day of the year as most people are off work on those days. The prayers offered are often wishes for success, health, good grades and love. You can also purchase new omamori (charms), and the old ones are returned to the shrine so they can be burned. The lines for these New Year’s visits are often very long and the current average temperature in Japan for December dips into the low 40s… though that’s nothing like the single digits we’re seeing here in Pittsburgh.
The most popular shrines can have more than a million visitors over the New Year’s holiday. The Meiji Shrine, for example, had 3.45 million visitors in 1998, and in the first three days of January 2010, 3.2 million people visited Meiji Jingū, 2.98 million visited Narita-san, 2.96 million stopped at Kawasaki Daishi, 2.7 million offered prayers at Fushimi Inari-taisha, and 2.6 million visited Sumiyoshi Taisha. Other popular destinations include Atsuta Jingū, Tsurugaoka Hachimangū, Dazaifu Tenman-gū and Hikawa Shrine.
A common custom during hatsumōde is to buy a written omikuji or fortune. If you receive a bad fortune the tradition is to tie the fortune to a tree on the shrine grounds and wish for a reprieve. The omikuji goes into detail and tells you how you will do in various areas in your life, such as business and love, for that year. A good-luck charm often comes with the omikuji when you buy it; it’s believed to summon good luck and bring money your way.
If you happen to visit a Shinto shrine on New Year’s or any other time this is how you pray.
- Pass through the torii gate. All shrines have a torii gate, even if they do not have a main sanctuary housing the spirit of a deity.
- Purify your hands and mouth at the “temizuya” water pavilion.
- At the altar, bow twice, clap your hands twice, and then bow once to pray.
If you’re worried about being a Christian or Muslim (or follower of any other religion) and not being welcomed, don’t. A shrine visit is a bit like dropping by to say hi to your neighborhood caretaker. You’ll find that almost every locality has a god or goddess. The god or goddess doesn’t need you to worship them (but they sure don’t mind if you do). You just need to be respectful of the tradition and not bother people or violate the sanctity of the site. He/she does not need your worship but will appreciate your gesture. The Shinto gods don’t mind if you follow another religion; your religion might, but the the Shinto faith doesn’t preclude other beliefs.
Happy New Year!
Amanda and Zeke