Due to the holiday season my blog has suffered somewhat, for which I apologise. Hopefully now that I’m settling back into university after the New Year I can continue updating a little more regularly and frequently. I spent the whole holiday period in Japan, my first Christmas away from my family, and got to see how Christmas and New Year are celebrated over here. Today I want to talk about New Year in Japan, specifically the ritual of hatsumode, 初詣, or ‘first shrine visit of the year’.
My friend and I visited Fushimi Inari 伏見稲荷大社 on January 2nd, making it my hatsumode, though I did not engage in the Japanese customs. I have visited Fushimi Inari before (see here), but this time it was very different for several reasons; first, it had snowed a record snowfall in Kyoto which made it very pretty; second, it was new year and filled with people, and third it was getting dark when we arrived so I got to experience the shrine at night. It’s quite poetic that it snowed on the first day of the new year, adding to the sense of renewal that Japanese new year carries with it.
Also last time I went I hadn’t yet got my Shuin (stamp) book, so this time I got to get my stamp.
The express trains were stopping especially at Fushimi Inari station on the Keihan line, which is very unusual and only happens at new year. This is because over the first few days of the new year, Fushimi Inari shrine is visited by around 2.7 million people. This shrine is said to bring good business and so business owners and those working in the financial sector visit especially to pray for good business in the year to come. The thousands of gates that give Fushimi Inari its iconic status have all been donated by businesses hoping to gain luck in their ventures and at new year companies donate food and goods to the kami of the shrine. As I am not running any business ventures I don’t think it will have harmed me too much to have not done the visit ‘properly’.
Catering to the millions of people visiting the shrine over the first week of January were many stalls selling a huge range of Japanese street food. Between us we had takoyaki (octopus balls), sugared sweet potato, wieners on a stick, yakitori (fried chicken skewers) and crepes. You can easily eat enough for a full meal there, and the food is not that expensive (ranging from around 300円 to 600 円, which is around £1.60 to £3.30). There were also stalls offering fortunes, selling DS games, soft toys and even one selling airsoft guns.
The proper way to do Hatsumode at a shrine is (as far as I am aware), to bring all the old luck amulets you purchased the last year to be burned by the shrine, purchase new ones, pray for good health and prosperity in the year ahead and get an omikuji, おみくじ – a fortune drawn at random that tells you your luck for the year ahead. If your omikuji is bad, or even the worst luck 大凶, Daikyo (best to be a hermit for the next year to evade certain disaster), you tie the fortune onto ropes at the shrine so the bad luck does not follow you for the new year. If you get a good luck, or even the best 大吉, Daikichi (go buy a lottery ticket), then you can take your fortune with you to keep the luck.
There are 12 levels of luck in total, from 大凶 to 大吉, and the slips of paper also indicate a more detailed fortune in terms of love and business among other things. This way of telling fortunes has been present in Japan since the Kamakura era (1185 – 1333) but the concept of a lottery to show the gods wills dates back even further than that.
Another custom that I think is acutally very good is the use of daruma 達磨. These are squat little figures with two big blank eyes, they are weighted and round in shape so that if you knock them over they will always return to their upright position, representing the ability to rise and succeed despite adversity. The idea is that you set yourself a goal, such as “I will sell this much of my product” or “I will lose this many kilos” or “I will get this grade in piano” and then you colour in one of the eyes. You then put the daruma somewhere you will see it frequently and it stares at you with its one eye. This is a good reminder that you have your goal and that you should try working towards it. When you complete your goal you can colour in the other eye. It works best for non-time-limited goals, as then it can stare at you indefinitely until you achieve it.
I had daruma for my first and second years of university, the goal being to do well and try my best throughout the year. I do think they motivated me to try harder. Traditionally at the end of the year daruma are burned and new ones are purchased, with new goals for the new year, much like new years resolutions. I, however, keep mine because it reminds me that I can achieve if I put my mind to it.
The shrine was initially very busy but as we climbed past the main shrine, where everyone was conducting hatsumode activities, it became a lot quieter and it steadily grew darker. We could hear crows all around us outside the tunnel of red gates and lamps. I certainly would not want to walk the whole route at night (over 3 hours walk), as it was eerie and felt like the set up to a Japanese themed horror film.
I would certainly recommend visiting Fushimi Inari at new year, despite it being one of the busier shrines. Perhaps visiting at dusk is wise as there are fewer people around (most were leaving as we went in). The snow added an extra magical element to the experience, and I feel very lucky to have been able to experience that. Of course, the shrine is great any time of year and is one of the classic temples to visit in Kyoto.
I hope you had a lovely new year and a happy Christmas (or whatever you like to celebrate). I wish you a great 2015, wherever you are in the world and I hope you continue to enjoy reading about my time in Japan!