Whether we are Buddhists, followers of Shintoism or atheists, the first thing many Japanese do on ganjitsu (New Year’s Day) is go to their local shrine or temple for hatsumōde, a symbolic first visit of the year. If it’s not done on Jan. 1, it will likely happen shortly after.

The turnout for hatsumōde each year is staggering. According to a 2009 report released by the Metropolitan Police Department, around 3.19 million people visited Meiji Shrine in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. Around 2.98 million visited Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in Chiba Prefecture and 2.96 million visited Kawasaki Daishi Heikenji Temple in Kanagawa Prefecture. Other popular shrines across the country include Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine in Kyoto, Atsuta Shrine in Aichi Prefecture and Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine in Osaka.

There are no set rules for hatsumōde. There are, however, some loose suggestions on how to conduct yourself during your visit.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, visitors first should pass under the torii gate at a shrine. Bowing before entering is considered proper etiquette, and it is better to avoid the center of the pathway as it is reserved for deities.

Once in the shrine, a quick wash of your hands and mouth at the temizuya (ritual cleansing basin) is preferable before heading to the altar. At the altar, change is thrown into the offering box, after which the bell is rung to greet the deity. If it’s your first time, you’ll see people partaking in nirei nihakushu ippai, which means “two bows, two claps, one bow.” Bow twice in front of the altar, clap twice, and then silently express gratitude to the deity. Bow once again afterward.

Despite a widespread belief that there are hard rules for shrine visits, the Association implies that the method of worship is up to the individual, and ultimately the mind-set is more important.

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