Any visitor to Japan will notice the plethora of shrines and temples — Shinto and Buddhist, respectively — thronging the country, some taking up entire blocks, others so small as to be unseen. Any visitor who decides to check out one of the more bigger shrines or temples on the New Year will be in for a treat. During the first three days of the New Year, called sanganichi (三が日), people from all walks of life throng to great and small places of worship to pray and make wishes for the new year. This is hatsumōde (初詣), the first shrine visit of the new year, and one of the busiest and most prosperous times for shrines and temples. Hatsumōde falls under the huge holiday period that is oshougatsu (お正月), a time of celebration and welcoming dating back to Japan's feudal era. Modernity, and even the economy, has left an indelible mark on the kinds of wishes people make for the coming year.
The Origins and History of Hatsumōde
Sources vary on the exact origins of hatsumōde, but it is generally accepted that it grew out of a Heian-era tradition called toshigomori (年籠り). The head of a household, known as the ie, would seclude himself in the local shrine of his family or hometown's guardian kami, or ujigami (氏神). He would pray to the ujigami from the last night of the previous year, and welcome the dawn of the new year with the kami. Even now, many people participate in hatsuhinode (初日の出), or the first sunrise of the new year.
(JP) Link: The First Sunrise of 2019! Top 10 Recommended Little-Known Places to See It [Kanto Edition]
The 1868 Meiji Restoration ushered in not only new ways of thinking, but new ways of transportation, notably the railroad system. Equipped with British financing and designs, from 1871 onward Japan laid down railroad systems all over the country. With the advent of the railroad, people from far-flung villages had the opportunity to make pilgrimages to some of the more revered or bigger temples for hatsumōde. They no longer had to rely on their small patron shrines, but could make their wishes at bigger shrines frequented by the urban masses.
To this day, Japan's railway companies still prove to be an important aspect of hatsumōde, notably for advertising purposes. For example, the Hankyu Corporation selects an up-and-coming troupe member from the famed Takarazuka all-female theater group to be a "poster model" for a hatsumōde ad campaign, as well as a special guest at the corporation's private shrine.
2019年 阪急阪神初詣ポスターモデルは月組のきよら羽龍さん pic.twitter.com/a8oTgEpslR— XYVYX (@irmscher117) 2018年12月18日
Twitter user irmscher117 uploaded this picture of the new ad campaign for Hankyu. The upcoming 2019's hatsumōde poster model is Takarazuka’s Kiyora Haryu. Notice the picture of the boar hanging from the arrow; according to the Chinese zodiac 2019 is the year of the boar.
The most popular shrine to visit is the Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo. As of 2017 over 3 million visitors flocked to the shrine for hatsumōde. Other notable shrines include Fushimi-Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) and Tsurugaoka Hachimanguu Shrine (鶴岡八幡宮).
(JP) Link: 2019 Hatsumōde Ranking Announcement! The Recommended Shrines for Hatsumōde
2019年 初詣ランキング発表！初詣におすすめの寺社 | 楽天トラベル
Hatsumōde isn't just observed in Japan alone. Hatsumōde is celebrated anywhere with a Shinto shrine and a large following. Notable shrines in the United States include the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Granite Falls, Washington, and Daijingū Temple in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The increase in hatsumōde visits during the Meiji era also had roots in fledgling nationalistic interests:
In order to create a modern unified nation, the new government conducted major operations in various fields such as administration, the justice system, military, and taxation, but in order to also integrate religion, the Meiji government thought it was necessary to use Shinto as the country’s single religious unity. The government organized regional shrines, incorporated Shinto teachings into political and educational fields, and spread the ideals of nationalist Shinto to the people. As part of that plan, visits of worship to shrines were encouraged.
(JP) Link: The History of "Hatsumōde" Is Surprisingly Shallow!? The Reason For Its Propagation
「初詣」の歴史は意外に浅い！？ 広まった理由とは 〈dot.〉
Japan was moving forward, after all, and old ways of thinking and living were in danger of being left behind in the wave of modernity. Promoting an indigenous belief system was one way to bolster nationalistic thoughts among the people and to keep them grounded in their ancient ways.
Making Wishes at Hatsumōde
Despite hatsumōde's origins in Shinto, many people often choose to visit either a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple. As covered in our earlier article on Shinto's status as a non-religious religion, most Japanese don't think of themselves as religious; rather, these rituals and festivities are considered cultural and enmeshed in the daily social lives of the Japanese. While there isn't a complicated list of rules for pilgrims on hatsumōde, there are some key aspects that make this shrine visit especially unique and noteworthy.
Shinto is all about purification and renewal, so before entering the shrine it's common to cleanse or purify your hands and mouth with water at the temizu-ya (手水舎). In this way, you'll be prepared to receive the kami’s blessing free from the influences of the outside world.
Then it's time to pray. Just like in a church or synagogue, there's a "correct" way to pray. Upon approaching the shrine proper, you make a monetary donation, or saisen (賽銭), by throwing a coin, usually a 5-yen one, into the shrine's collection box, the saisenbako (賽銭箱). After bowing twice, you either pull a rope to ring the bell and catch the kami's attention, or clap your hands twice. Then you make your wish for the upcoming year. Wishes range from passing entrance exams, getting a job, falling in love, or even being safe from natural disasters.
2017 rings in across Japan as shrine, temple throngs pray for good year | The Japan Times
When you finish making your wish, you give a final bow to the kami before departing. Now it's time to arm yourself for the new year with omamori (お守り). A large part of a shrine's income is through the selling of omamori, or protective charms and amulets. Omamori vary by size and type — there's omamori for finding a job, overall happiness, and getting pregnant. Whatever aid you need from the kami, there's bound to be an omamori for you. Many pilgrims buy new omamori and burn their old ones in a specific pyre on the shrine grounds; this is known as otakiage (お焚き上げ). Some shrines hold a special otakiage ceremony of the old omamori on a later date. Where you place your new omamori is said to increase or decrease its effectiveness, and the likelihood of your wishes coming true.
(JP) Link: An Explanation of How to Hold an Omamori for the Best Effect! Where Is the Correct Place to Attach an Omamori?
お守りの効果ある持ち方解説！つける場所はどこが正しいの？ | Lovely[ラブリー]
People can also choose to purchase an ema. An ema (絵馬), literally "picture horse," is a type of prayer board with a picture of a horse or other symbol on one side, and a blank side on the other for people to write their hopes and wishes.
If you're feeling especially plucky or daring, you can also purchase an omikuji (御神籤), or a fortune slip predicting one's happiness for the new year. Your fortune will either be a blessing, or daikichi (大吉), or a curse (大凶; daikyou). If it's the latter, you tie the omikuji to a tree or rope on the shrine grounds in hopes the ill fortune won't follow you when you leave.
Hatsumōde pilgrimages have only increased over the years, and while the huge crowds of people can be anxiety-inducing, the general mood is one of celebration and excitement. It's a time to move on from the past year and welcome the endless possibilities the new year has in store. If you're fortunate to be in Japan during the New Year, then be sure to visit your closest shrine or temple and take part in this ancient tradition. You won't regret it.
Hong, Lisa. "The First Prayer of the New Year." Gaijinpot, Dec 30 2016. Accessed Dec 23 2018. https://blog.gaijinpot.com/hatsumōde-meiji-jingu/.
"A celebration of Japanese traditions." The Japan Times, Jan 1 2017. Accessed Dec 28 2018. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/01/01/national/celebration-japanese-traditions/#.XChLoM1CfIV
Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance Japan and mental health content writer living in Chico, California with her partner and one cat. She graduated in 2015 from Willamette University with a B.A. in Japanese Studies and continues to improve her Japanese language skills. She is also a published poet and fiction writer. You can check out her freelance writing work at The Japanese Pearl.
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