Temples and Shrines: Your First Visit of the Year

Japan is a country of traditions and beliefs passed down from generation to generation. There are several superstitions to be aware of at the start of each New Year, but one way you can build up your fortune is by making your first visit to a temple or shrine. This tradition, called hatsumode, is considered the most important visit of the year. You can protect yourself from bad spirits, give thanks for blessings in the last year, and figure out what kind of fortune to expect in the coming year. During hatsumode, there are various customs and rituals happening all at once, so here are some things you should know to have a smooth experience.

History of Hatsumode

The tradition as we experience it today dates back to around the early 19th century, which seems relatively recent compared to other long-standing practices in Japan. However, earlier forms of New Year’s traditions involving long prayers can be traced all the way back to the Heian period (794–1185).

In these rituals, it was the responsibility of the head of the household to begin praying on the last day of the year until the morning of the first day of the next year. If they fell asleep, it was said that their hair would turn white and they would develop wrinkles much faster. Fortunately, the tradition as it exists today is less strict. While it is still the most important tradition of the year, it is simply the first temple or shrine visit of the year.

The Difference Between Shrines and Temples

For the purpose of hatsumode, both temples and shrines are okay. The main difference is the religion and beliefs associated with them. Shrines are built to house gods, which in Japanese culture are forces of nature who can bring fortune to humans. Temples are built to honor Buddhas or bodhisattvas, who differ from gods in that they are people who have reached enlightenment.

It can sometimes be difficult to understand the difference between Shinto shrines, called jinja and Buddhist temples, called o-tera, so here are tips to help you recognize which is which. From a visual perspective, the biggest difference is the presence or absence of the torii gates. These gates are usually red and let you know that you are in front of a shrine. They serve as the gates for gods, so be careful not to walk along the middle of the path as you enter and exit the jinja.

Around this time of year, temples tend to be the more popular destination of choice. Places like Sensoji in Asakusa and Meiji Jingu near Harajuku are the two most popular temples for hatsumode in the country every year. Temples generally contain larger and more complicated structures like statues of Nio, guardians of the Buddhas.

How to Pray at a Shrine or Temple

Whether you pray at a temple or a shrine, you must first make yourself pure through a washing ritual called chouzuya. This is performed at a well-like washing station near the entrance. First, take the ladle with your right hand to wash your left hand. Next, switch hands to wash your right hand with the ladle in your left. Once both hands are clean, pour water into your left hand, gargle the water, and spit the water onto the ground. Finally, let the leftover water in the ladle run down the handle to clean it. Once you’ve done this, you are now considered pure! (Note that due to the Covid situation, these washing stations may not be in operation at some shrines and temples.)

To pray at a shrine, make your monetary offering by tossing a coin into the wooden box. For better luck, try to use a five yen coin if possible. The Japanese word for the coin, go-en, can be written ご縁, which means “fortune.” If there is a bell attached to a rope above the offering box, ring it twice. If there is not, step back, bow, clap twice and pray.

Praying at a temple is a little bit simpler. Like the shrine, there will be an offering box, so you will first make your offering by throwing in a coin. Next, bow once, make your prayer, and bow once again.

Paying a Visit

These are the rituals that can be performed at every temple or shrine. However, if you visit one of the larger temples like Sensoji or Kawasaki Daishi, there are other things that you can experience as well. There will be shops selling omamori, or good luck amulets. These can be bought for a variety of specific reasons like physical health, safety from danger, wealth, and knowledge.

If you feel like testing your luck, you can buy omikuji. These slips of paper tell you your luck for the coming year. By drawing sticks from a box, you will be assigned a number. That number represents which drawer to open in order to receive your fortune. Don’t worry if you don’t get the luck you wanted, though. If you do happen to pull a bad fortune, tying your piece of paper to a tree allows you to change it into a good blessing!

These rituals are not only important for good luck in the coming year. They are an integral part of Japanese culture and a good way to participate in your local community. You will often see food stands, small shops, and various booths at the larger temples. It turns a simple ritual into a fun day that you can spend with others. If you have not made your first visit yet, the next best time is now!

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