As Japanese plan traditional New Year's shrine visits to pray for a better year after coronavirus-ridden 2020, shrines and temples around the country are adopting measures to curb COVID-19 risks.
After the coronavirus outbreak began, many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples removed their hishaku ladles for washing their hands and suzunoo ropes for ringing bells, as infected visitors might spread the virus to others through contact with the items.
Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto replaced its suzunoo in June with a speaker that plays the sound of bells when visitors pass their hands over a sensor.
The shrine is considering removing the speaker over the New Year's period, as the novelty of the tool may attract visitors and raise infection risks.
Ikuta Shrine in Kobe has introduced a system of minimizing contact for omikuji fortunes. Instead of drawing numbered sticks from a box, visitors can scan a QR code with their smartphones to draw a number virtually, which they can show shrine workers to receive paper fortunes.
"I hope people draw (omikuji) with their prayers concentrated in their fingertips," shrine worker Masaaki Sawada, 36, said.
Concerns are growing that the rush to visit shrines and temples over the holidays may result in closed, crowded and close-contact settings, which are said to increase the risk of coronavirus infection.
Meiji Jingu, a sprawling Shinto shrine in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, and Naritasan Shinsho-ji, a major Buddhist temple in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, each called on people to avoid visits on the first three days of the new year and not to come in large groups. The two sites are known for attracting huge numbers of visitors.
There are even moves to get visitors to pray before the turn of the year. Some shrines are distributing good-luck items for the next year ahead of New Year's Day.
"There can be many forms" of prayers, a representative from Hiroshima Gokoku Shrine in the city's Naka Ward said, suggesting that prayers offered this year will be effective in bringing good luck in the new year.
Kashima Jingu, a shrine in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, is calling on people not to be particular about visiting just on the first three days of the new year but to spread their visits over the first 33 days of 2021, through Feb. 2.
"By presenting this period for reference, we think visitors will be spread out," said Tomonori Niikura, 42, a public relations official of the shrine. "The new year is an important time for gathering with family members, so we want them to visit while taking infection prevention measures."
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