National | AT A GLANCE

A new year, a new prayer, and hopefully luck

by Satoko Kawasaki

Staff Photographer

New Year’s Day is not just the first day of the year in this country — it has a special meaning.

Jan. 1 is when people invite a god into their homes — the Shinto deity that presides over safety and prosperity for the year to come.

People believe that everything — the sun, the moon, water and fire — is reborn on the day when the new year begins.

It is said that “the god of the year” visits each house to bring happiness for the year. To welcome the god and receive the blessing, people have created a variety of New Year’s Day rituals and customs.

As the old year winds down, they sweep away the dust and clean every corner of the house, which they then decorate with auspicious ornaments and offerings, including kadomatsu, a decoration made with pine branches and bamboo, shimekazari, made of pine branches, rice straw, plastic cranes and other lucky charms, and decorative kagami mochi pounded rice cakes in a two-mound stack.

‘Kagami mochi,’ a rice-cake offering, sits at Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens on Jan. 2. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

After the day breaks on Jan. 1, many people go out to greet the first sunrise of the year, which is also believed to bring luck. The custom, in which people make a wish and proclaim their new year’s resolutions, started to become widespread across the nation in the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

During that time, it became popular to visit a Shinto shrine located in the direction of a lucky cardinal or ordinal point, depending on the year’s Chinese zodiac sign. People wait in line from first light to get the first amulet given by the shrine. The visit is thought to be the origin of the current custom of visiting a shrine or Buddhist temple for the new year.

People visit Sensoji Temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district on Sunday.
People visit Sensoji Temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district on Sunday. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

In recent times, regardless of direction, famous shrines and temples attract throngs of people who are keen to pray for good luck for the new year. Trains run all night on New Year’s Eve to accommodate them. Every year, about 3 million people visit Meiji Shrine and Sensoji Temple over the first three days.

This section explores in photographs neighborhoods of interest.