The sounds of joya-no-kane, the traditional ringing of temple bells 108 times on New Year’s Eve, will soon fill the air as Japan gets set for one of its biggest holidays.
For those who haven’t been here long, New Year’s Eve in Japan is a less boisterous affair than it tends to be in other parts of the world. It consists of big dinners on Dec. 31, the family gathering around the television to watch end-of-year programs such as NHK’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” and on the night itself or in the days following there will be a trip to a temple or shrine. That visit is known as hatsumode (first temple or shrine visit of the year).
Common knowledge dictates that hatsumode be done in the first three days of January. Timing is important, though, some places of worship can get quite busy. Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto and Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, all tend to attract around 3 million visitors in the first few days of the year.
Visiting a local shrine or temple on New Year’s Eve can be a little bit better. Shrines will offer amazake (sweet sake) to help bring in the new year. On top of that, visitors can select an omikuji (paper slip with a fortune written on it) or purchase omamori (lucky charms) and hamaya, an arrow that works as a talisman that protects its owner from evil. Just remember to bring these items back to the place you buy them the following year so they can be burned and you can start again with new ones.
In selecting a shrine to visit, some revelers will head to a shrine that is related to the animal of the zodiac the new year represents in order to receive better luck. Next year is the year of the rooster, and you will be able to see the birds at shrines such as Yabo Tenmangu Shrine in Tokyo, Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture and Isonokami Jingu Shrine in Nara Prefecture.
Another option is to pursue the shichifukujin meguri, which is a short pilgrimage to sites that honor the seven dieties of good fortune such as Ebisu, the god of fishermen and merchants, and Benzaiten, the goddess of art.
You can do the shichifukujin meguri tour at various places across the country. For example, one Tokyo tour consists of seven locations: Itsukushima and Inari Kio shrines and Taisoji, Hozenji, Eifukuji, Kyooji, Zenkokuji temples. Buy a shikishi, a piece of cardboard on which you can put seven stamps to show you completed the tour.
If you don’t believe in the zodiac or in the gods, then place your faith in something else: Every new year the country has a giant lottery and the numbers are announced on Jan. 12. If you win, what a great way to start off 2017.