Oftentimes in the Americas, Europe or Australia, if you ask how someone spends their time at New Year’s, they’re almost certain to answer with any number of possible responses like ‘with my friends’, or ‘watching fireworks’ or the exciting ‘partying all night!’ The one answer that you won’t hear is ‘Oh I’m spending New Year’s with my family.’
This is in stark contrast to how New Year’s is often viewed in Asian countries and particularly in Japan. Japanese New Year’s is a special time in which family comes first and it’s also the one time of year when it’s guaranteed that most shops and businesses will be closed for a few days in a row, so that each employee gets a chance to spend time with their families.
In this respect, thinking about which time of year is an absolute must when it comes to spending time with family, it’s safe to say that the holidays in the Americas, including any manner of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc., are what New Year’s is to the Japanese in some sense. New Year’s tends to be quiet and pensive in Japan, whereas overseas it’s generally a huge party. Likewise, a Japanese Christmas time is for couples, similar to Valentine’s Day. While on the other hand, Christmas overseas is when families come together and people are off of work.
At Christmas for instance, families gather together and often partake in a memorable church service to celebrate the holiday. In Japan at New Year’s, a somewhat similar event takes place and is considered part and parcel of the event calendar.
Families in Japan, rather than staging an energetic 10 second countdown to midnight, may often leave the house quietly at midnight and make a trek to the nearest Shinto shrine (or Buddhist temple) together. If they don’t go out at midnight, this shrine visitation may be performed anytime throughout the first few days of the year. In fact, it’s often recommended to wait a few days in order to avoid the crowds of people that are sure to converge on practically every religious site in the country.
This first visit is done by people who are religious and non religious alike, and it’s called ‘hatsumode’. Anyone is welcome to experience hatsumode and pray for good health, prosperity, happiness, and any special wishes or resolutions that they may have in their hearts.
The term ‘hatsumode’ is made up of two Japanese kanji characters: 初詣
‘Hatsu’ means ‘first’ and ‘mode’ means ‘shrine visit’. Just as its name suggests, it’s the all-important first visit to the shrine in the new year that is meant to start the next twelve month journey around the sun in the most auspicious way possible. As mentioned earlier, hatsumode is a very important part of New Year’s tradition in Japan, and even among people who may not be very religious it’s a custom that the vast majority gladly participate in.
The main purpose of this first visit of the year to the local shrine is to pray to have good luck throughout the upcoming twelve months. There is not a service or mass, however. Instead, you can come and go at will and as long as you’ve said a quick prayer near the heart of the shrine, you’re all set!
Hatsumode is enjoyable because there’s an air of hope and celebration in the air. Plus, depending on which shrine you’re at, there may even be snacks and some light window shopping to do. However, for the main event people often pray for happiness for their friends, family, and themselves. It’s a rather simple ritual but there are some rules to follow for a smooth and authentic experience. Plus, there’s no need for it to be very long or detailed, you can feel free to keep things short and simple.
Purify hands & mouth with water at the shrine entrance.
Using the ladle, pour the water over your left then right hand. Then, place the ladle down and rinse your lips or mouth with the water on your hands.
Throw a coin into the box at the prayer area as an offering to the shrine.
Ring the bell to announce your presence to the gods.
Bow twice, then clap your hands twice.
There is no specific set prayer or method to this. Quietly ponder what your heart desires and let your wish be known to the gods. No need to verbalize this either.
Bow one last time once you’re finished.
Some of what makes a hatsumode visit so enjoyable is that it’s a chance to get a special fortune or even some charms and lucky souvenirs to take home with you. Likely the most popular of these is called ‘omikuji’. These are strips of paper with random fortunes written on them. Found at both Shinto shrines & Buddhist temples in Japan, what makes omikuji interesting is that they’re so detailed. The little slip of paper offers predictions on love, health, dreams, and luck for the upcoming year. There are different levels of luck as well that one may receive.
But what if your omikuji predicts a year of bad luck for you? Fear not, because if you draw an omikuji fortune that doesn’t seem very lucky, you are free to fold it up and tie it to a designated pine tree or wooden bar so that the bad luck won’t attach itself to you. If you draw a very lucky omikuji, however, it’s common to take the paper home to use as a good luck charm.
You don’t have to be a practitioner of Shintoism or Buddhism to perform hatsumode. As long as you have a wish in your heart and follow the few rules that there are when you profess your wish or prayer, you’re free to enjoy your visit as you wish. Would you partake in hatsumode the next time you’re in Japan over the New Year’s Holiday? Have you ever experienced something like hatsumode before? Let us know in the comments below!
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