Hatsumode: How to Celebrate the Japanese New Year
Hatsumode is the Japanese tradition of visiting a shrine or temple to welcome the new year. If you're in Japan during the holidays, it's a cultural experience that definitely shouldn't be missed! This article will explain what hatsumode is, teach you how to take part in the tradition, and introduce some of the most popular places to go to experience it!
Dec 23 2020 (Dec 25 2020)
Hatsumode: The Japanese Way to Ring In the New Year
To many Japanese people, welcoming in the new year takes precedence over all other holidays in terms of importance. There are many unique practices and customs that occur towards the end of the year, all with curious origins and backstories, but perhaps the most important and well-known tradition is called “Hatsumode.” Today, we will be looking at this fun and sacred practice, which consists of visiting a shrine or temple to ring in the new year.
What Exactly is Hatsumode?
As mentioned in the intro, hatsumode is, simply put, the first shrine or temple visit of the new year in Japan. But wait, temples and shrines are for different religions (Buddhism and Shintoism), right? Is it really okay to go to either one? The answer is yes, and we’ll get to the reason why a bit further down. Suffice it to say, the purpose of Hatsumode is to give thanks to the divine for making it safely through another year and to pray for good fortune in the new year.
So is it ok to just visit any temple or shrine in the new year and call it hatsumode? Well, sort of, but it is a little more nuanced than that. Typically, hatsumode is performed between midnight on New Year's Eve and the third day of the calendar year (January 1st to January 3rd).
Having said that, the first time you visit a shrine or a temple in the New Year (even if you put it off until August) is technically still considered hatsumode. This is because there is no official rule regarding the window of time for hatsumode (the kanji literally just mean "first visit to pray"). However, most people do perform hatsumode during the first three days of the year, and there is a special atmosphere that can only be enjoyed during this period.
During hatsumode, the grounds of many shrines and temples fill up with stalls selling treats and goodies, giving it a festival-like energy that is quite fun. Another thing that makes hatsumode special is that both men and women use it as an excuse to dress up in traditional kimono! It makes for quite a sight with throngs of people decked out in their “New Year’s best.” In fact, it’s rather rare to see men dress in kimono in public nowadays, so it’s a great opportunity to witness this traditional display. In places like Kyoto, where it is possible to rent a kimono for the day, you could even join in on the dress-up fun.
How to Perform Hatsumode
Aside from the timing, there are a few other elements that set hatsumode apart from a regular shrine or temple visit. However, the basic practice of walking up to the main hall, making an offering, and saying a prayer is the same. If you are not accustomed to visiting shrines or temples and don’t know the protocol, please make sure to have a look at the following article first: The Differences Between Praying at Shrines and Temples in Japan. Even if you have visited shrines and temples in Japan before, it might be a good idea to brush up on your etiquette (and maybe you’ll even learn something new).
If you are uncertain what to pray for, since “good luck” is quite a nebulous term, it is actually recommended that you avoid asking for anything at all during your prayer. Rather, you should just give thanks and show your respect to the local deity (be they Buddha or a Shinto god) and the gods will take care of the rest!
Why It's Okay to Visit Either a Shrine or Temple
Even though Buddhism and Shintoism are two different religions, the Japanese tradition of hatsumode can be performed at either temples (Buddhist) or shines (Shinto). The reason is that, for the majority of Japanese history, the line between Buddhism and Shintoism was vague, and oftentimes the worship of the Buddha and kami (Shinto gods) could actually be performed in the same location.
Thus, hatsumode, the origins of which can be traced back to the Heian period (794–1185), was performed at either temples or shrines indiscriminately.
This all changed in 1868, when the new Meiji government decided to strongly promote an image of Shintoism as the one true Japanese religion. Buddhism, with its roots in India, was deemed a “foreign” school of thought, leading to many temples being shut down and Buddhism being shunned by the powers that were.
However, despite the widespread destruction of Buddhist literature and idols, Buddhism ultimately survived when the government abandoned these efforts just 5 years later in 1873. The effects of this short-lived movement remain to this day, however, and created a clear divide between Japan's predominant religions.
Finding Luck at Hatsumode: Omamori, Omikuji, and Hamaya
The act of hatsumode is finished fairly quickly as it is just a prayer, but getting up to the shrine or temple can take a long time due to the large number of people all visiting at the same time. Having said that, there are loads of fun things to enjoy during your hatsumode visit aside from praying.
Omamori are special good-luck amulets that are said to carry a little bit of divine presence with them. These colorful and ornate charms come in a variety of unique designs depending on the shrine or temple. Although they are available year-round, it is very trendy to buy them during hatsumode as gifts for friends and family to protect against bad luck of all kinds.
There is a catch, however: omamori have an exploration date of about one year, after which the divine power is said to wane. In this case, bring your omamori back to the shrine or temple you got it from originally, and it will be burned as a sign of respect for its help throughout the year. Of course, after you burn your old omamori, you'll need to buy a new one, and hatsumode is the perfect time to do so!
If you want to learn more about the different kinds of omamori available, check out this article: Omamori: 8 Lucky Charms To Try in Japan!
Omikuji, or detailed fortune papers, are another element present in temples and shrines year-round. However, with the new year comes new possibilities, and it is customary to get your fortune during hatsumode. While the specifics may vary from shrine to shrine and temple to temple, getting an omikuji usually involves shaking a wooden box filled with numbered sticks until one comes out of a small opening on one end. Look for the corresponding number on the adjacent wooden drawers and pull out your fortune.
Omikuji go into great detail about your fortune in areas like health, love, wealth, and general endeavors. If you get a bad fortune, you can tie it to a wooden rack, which is usually closeby, in the hopes that the gods can manipulate your fate. You can also send off your paper to the gods even if you get a good fortune, as a way to say thanks, but many people choose to keep a good fortune and take it home.
The hamaya (literally translated to “demon breaker arrow") is another decorative charm available during the new year to ward off bad luck. Traditionally, these arrows were given to celebrate the first new year of a baby boy’s life and came in a set with a demon breaker bow (hamayumi). Now, it is more common to just get the arrow as a proxy for the set and it is seen as a symbol of shooting for the best opportunity in the new year, in addition to being a talisman for family safety.
You can display your hamaya in your home in a number of different ways. While it should be enshrined and displayed in a Kamidana (small Shinto shrine for the home), if you do not have one of these, displaying it as a wall hanging will suffice. As hamaya ward off evil, it's a good idea to keep it in a place your family spends a lot of time in, like the living room. Otherwise, put it near the entrance to your house to keep bad luck out.
Where to Perform Hatsumode
While it is possible to perform hatsumode at basically any shrine or temple, if you want to get the most out of the experience, you might want to consider visiting one of the most popular establishments to see what a "standard" hatsumode should feel like.
The following are 5 extremely popular locations in Japan to perform hatsumode.
Ise Jingu (Naiku) [Mie Prefecture]
Located in Mie Prefecture, Ise Jingu is considered one of the most important Shinto shrines in all of Japan and is said to enshrine the sun goddess Amaterasu. Some go so far as to call it "the soul of Japan." Due to Ise Jingu's prestigious nature, it boasts the honor of being the most popular place to perform hatsumode.
Fushimi Inari Taisha [Kyoto]
Kyoto is home to hundreds of ancient shrines and temples, making it difficult to choose where to go for hatsumode if you're in the city on New Year's. However, undoubtedly the most popular hatsumode spot in the city is the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine, known for its thousands of red torii gates that wind up the mountainside. For hatsumode, there is a special ceremony called "Saitansai" held at the shrine's main building beginning at 6:00 am on January 1st. Fushimi Inari is also well-known for its fox statues, which are said to be the messengers of Inari, the kami enshrined here. As a result, there are many cute fox-themed omamori available here, so take the opportunity to get a year's worth of good luck with a crafty twist.
Sumiyoshi Taisha [Osaka]
Not to be outdone by anyone, Osaka also has a famous and popular shrine for hatsumode: Sumiyoshi Taisha. It is one of Japan’s oldest shrines, founded in the 3rd century, and houses kami that look after fishermen and other seafarers, which is perfect for the harbor city of Osaka. In fact, the kami of Sumiyoshi are so popular that there are multiple shrines that share the same name, so make sure you visit "Sumiyoshi Taisha," which is the main shrine.
Atsuta Jingu [Nagoya]
The most popular hatsumode spot in the Chubu region is Nagoya's Atsuta Jingu.
The history and prestige of Atsuta Jingu are often compared to those of Ise Jingu (the first and most prestigious shrine mentioned above), and the shrine has a backstory that deserves an entire article to itself (think nearly 2000 years of history and an enshrined legendary sword). Suffice it to say, Atsuta Jingu is an important Shinto shrine and is considered a must-visit for hatsumode if you are in the Nagoya area.
Meiji Jingu [Tokyo]
Last, but certainly not least, we have Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu. Located only a quick walk from Harajuku Station, you might be surprised to find such a vast tract of natural land in the center of Tokyo. Despite its large area, the crowds for hatsumode are astounding with about 3 million people on average! Meiji Jingu may get crowded for the new year, but it is a great way to feel the spirit of hatsumode in the middle of Japan's biggest metropolis.
Have a Japanese-Style New Year by Doing Hatsumode!
Hatsumode is a fun way to start the year out on the right foot, garner some good luck, ward off evil spirits, and ultimately visit some beautiful shrines and temples. So get into the spirit of the new year and try out hatsumode for yourself!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.