Saturday 6 January 2018

The first Shrine Visit of the Year: Hatsumode

2018 is now upon us, also known as the year of the dog (inu-doshi =戌年). 2018 is also the penultimate year of Heisei in the Japanese calendar - Heisei 30 - since the abdication of the emperor in May 2019 will bring with it a new (as yet unannounced) era. Most Japanese are now back at work but during the holidays - especially the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of January - many made a point of visiting a shrine to make their prayers and wishes for the new year, a practice known as hatsumōde (初詣) made up of the characters for "first" and "make a pilgrimage". Indeed, although most of the shops were shut during this period, trains were crowded with people and two or three hour queues were not uncommon at some of the most popular shrines.

Personally, I like to avoid spending hours queueing with thousands of others at a popular shrine like Meiji Shrine (=Meiji Jingu) in Shibuya (which reportedly sees three million visitors in the first three days of January!) and instead paid a visit to my local neighbourhood shrine (pictured). There's even a bilingual poster explaining how to pray properly at the shrine captured in three easy steps: two bows or ni-hai (二拝), two hand-claps or ni-hakushu (二拍手), and one bow or ippai (一拝). Typically people throw a coin - 5 yen is supposed to bring luck in romance - into the wooden box (saisen-bako =賽銭箱) before these steps. You can also ring the shrine bell to alert the deity to your presence after making your offering. For a more detailed explanation see here.

After praying, if you choose to buy a lucky charm (omamori) or fortune paper (omikuji) from the shrine shop you'll probably be served by a young woman wearing a white top and red hakama trousers with her hair tied back in a decorative clasp. These women are known as miko (巫女) or "shrine maidens" in English and act as assistants to the priest, often part-timers at busy times, though in the past they were powerful shamans. The video below was taken by a friend at the famous Iwashimizu Hachimangū Shrine (石清水八幡宮) in Yawata City, Kyoto Prefecture (京都府八幡市) and shows a traditional shrine maiden's ceremonial dance (miko-mai =巫女舞) or kagura (神楽) on New Year's Day (see here for an official video).