Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: Hatsumōde, the first shrine visit of the new year

Friday, 27 December 2013

Hatsumōde, the first shrine visit of the new year

Now that Christmas is over, it's time to prepare for Japan's *real* celebration, New Year.

Overnight, as if by magic, the Christmas decorations were taken down and traditional New Year's decorations appeared. I always imagine that thousands of elves, or perhaps kappa?, descend on the city and ruthlessly replace every Christmas tinsel with green pine branches.

This is called a kadomatsu or "pine gate". You see it at the entrances of
buildings, shrines and temples.

I have mixed emotions about Christmas in Japan. The day itself has no religious meaning for me, but I've come to dislike the merciless consumerism that accompanies it. That, however, is precisely why I prefer the Japanese version: it's 100% pure capitalism with no hypocrisy, pious posturing or bickering about Merry Christmas vs Happy Holidays.

It also includes romance: a dinner in a very expensive French restaurant, followed – presumably – by a romp that doesn't exactly feature a virgin birth.

Anyway. New Year.

Japan has many New Year's traditions, including hatsumōde (初詣) or the first shrine/temple visit of the year. It's mostly done within the first three days of the year, which means places of worship are jam-packed.

Sensō-ji at night

Sensō-ji with New Year's decorations

Worshippers praying at Sensō-ji over New Year

Not all shrines are created equal, of course, which means the privileged ones are raking it in. According to a Kyōto Chūō Kinko Bank survey conducted in 2008, visitors contribute an average of ¥320 per person during hatsumōde. You can do your own calculations of the shrines' total income based on these visitor figures for the first three days of 2013 (based on data supplied by Mapple):

1. Meiji Jingū in Tokyo 3,13 million
2. Naritasan in Chiba 3 million
3. Kawasaki Daishi in Kawasaki 2,98 million
4. Sensō-ji in Tokyo 2,81 million
5. Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto 2,7 million
6. Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū in Kamakura 2,55 million
7. Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka 2,35 million
8. Atsuta Jingū in Nagoya 2,3 million
9. Hikawa Jinja in Ōmiya
 2,07 million
10. Dazaifu Tenman-gū in Fukuoka 2 million

I've been to all of them except Sumiyoshi, Atsuta and Dazaifu; but the only one I've visited during the New Year stampede is my backyard temple, Sensō-ji. Even then I cheated: I went late at night or very early in the morning. You couldn't force me into the fray of the peak time crowd even if you threatened to burn my book collection.

I haven't written about all of them either, but you can read more about Sensō-ji and Naritasan.

Incidentally, you can pray for very specific benefits at some of these places: Sensō-ji and Kanda Myōjin for business prosperity (the latter also for victories), Atago Jinja in Kyoto and Minato for career success, Tokyo Daijingū in Iidabashi for romantic success, all Tenman-gū shrines for academic success and Yushima Tenman-gū hyper-specifically if you want to pass the entrance exam of the University of Tokyo.

I usually go walkabout to all the major shrines and temples in the shitamachi during the New Year's period. It's called "covering your butt for all eventualities".

This year I visited Kawasaki Daishi for the first time, but I went in the week before New Year because I wanted to avoid the crowds. It was good timing, because I could watch the temple prepare for the deluge: ojiisan preparing kadomatsu, food stall owners setting up their stalls, young (apprentice?) monks sweeping furiously with bamboo rakes.

Preparing kadomatsu at Kawasaki Daishi

Preparing kadomatsu at Kumano Jinja in Shinjuku

They haven't been dressed in their pine and straw jackets yet.

I want to do a separate post about Kawasaki Daishi, but in short, it was allegedly inspired by Kūkai  (774–835), posthumously known as Kōbō Daishi, the famous monk who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism. Just think of him as the Jesus Christ of Japan, and you'll have a fairly good idea of his impact.

According to legend, he carved a statue of himself in his 42nd year, which is known as a yakudoshi ( year of bad luck) for men. When he'd finished it, he cast it into the ocean, and then revealed its whereabouts in a dream to a Hirama Kanenori, a retainer of the powerful Minamoto clan. Hirama imported a priest from Kōyasan and founded a temple called Heiken-ji (平間), which is popularly called Kawasaki Daishi (川崎大) after the main reason for its existence.
The temple still has the legendary statue.

Walking towards Kawasaki Daishi

The main gate at Kawasaki Daishi

The main gate from the other side

The main temple building at Kawasaki Daishi

To this day the temple is famous for the benefits it bestows on its worshippers as well as its fire (護摩 goma) ritual when sacred sticks of wood (護摩木 gomagi) bearing religious inscriptions and petitioners' specific requests are burned in a sacred fire.

It's also particularly famous for providing traffic safety; as a matter of fact, its reputation in this field is so vast that it has a massive separate temple constructed specifically for this purpose.

This is the temple where you pray for traffic safety
at Kawasaki Daishi.

Transport companies send their entire fleets here to be blessed.

What did I see when I walked to the traffic safety temple?

Clearly Tokyo's mamachari cyclists have never visited this temple.

The main act is on New Year's Eve, and the curtain rises at midnight. If you're feeling brave enough and if your ski jacket is warm enough … jump in. I'm not going to include access maps to these places of worship. They're famous, reams of text have been written about them, they all have websites (many in English). Go ye forth, Google and conquer.


I love the colours and textures of straw ropes.

Bamboo rake spotted at Zōjō-ji

An empty food stall at Zōjō-ji, waiting forlornly for customers

New Year's decoration

Kagami mochi

Kanda Myōjin is also popular over New Year, especially
among businessmen.

Hikawa Jinja in Saitama

Straw rope decoration and pine branches at Kawasaki Daishi

Shop selling souvenirs at Kawasaki Daishi

Next year is the year of the horse.

Food stalls setting up at Kawasaki Daishi


  1. I'm looking forward to the year of the horse and always enjoy the traditional aspects of New Year's in Japan. It is a time to look back to the past and follow traditions that have taken place for hundreds of years.

    1. I love New Year in Tokyo, and even the crowds are OK, provided I can lurk in a corner and observe from afar. :)

  2. My greatest beef with Christmas in Japan is that thinking of KFC chicken, Christmas cake and Chanmery together just makes me gag. It sounds like the stuff that kids overeat on in children's literature and then spend the next day in bed feeling sick.

    1. I bought one tiny Christmas cake, mainly to post a photo on Google+. :) The rest of your list I avoid at all costs. I'm waiting for New Year's food, and thanks to my sweet tooth I'm looking forward to kinako mochi, kurikinton, kuromame, kinpira gobō.

      When I think of Japan's Christmas food, I recall the sushi atrocities I've seen in other countries and instruct myself to be Gentle & Tolerant. I never succeed, but I do my best. >:)

      PS: Champagne has been bought for New Year. You'll be relieved to know it's real champagne.

  3. Shrines or temples in Kanto area gather much more offering money. When I went Tokyo this Autumn I astonished a large population in Tokyo. I thought It's likely that 42unlucky age came from Kobo-Daishi. Thank you for the informative story.
    Wishing you a Very Happy New Year!

    1. Tokyo is surprisingly quiet over the New Year's period, because so many people return to their home towns. Quiet, that is, except at temples and stores having New Year's sales. ;)

      Happy year of the horse, Sarah-san!

  4. Surprisingly I've only been to 2 on the list. Guess which? :P

    Okay, you had your chance:
    Meiji Jingu & Sensoji

    I actually visited Meiji Jingu about 3 times for the New Year alone. I found it to be like being in a cattle herd. I should dig up my old post if I have one. Otherwise write one tonight!

    Oh, an errant thought, that rake reminded me of an inaka park/temple I saw on TV. They had a rake for YOU to use for 5 minutes. They asked visitors to help keep the park clean and since they didn't have enough people to clean it up every day, they just put the rake out and asked people to help out. I should try to look that up again.

    1. Is Meiji Jingū even worse than Kitte's Xmas tree? >:) I've heard you have to wait up to three hours in the queue to pray. No. No no no and no.

      I love the idea of the public rake! You need to dig up (rake up?) that story, too!

    2. You can't prove your patience till you have been waiting at Meiji Jingu for 3 hour. >:)

      PS: That rake story is lost to me now. I actually didn't find out where it is. :(

    3. I popped into Sensō-ji early this morning, and that was bad enough. The crowds are assembling; the stampede is gathering force ...

      No rake? :'(

  5. These kadomatsu little trees are beautiful, and the "naked" bamboo looks like organ's pipes. Kōbō Daishi was smart: so he is 42 and feeling this will be the bad year. He makes a statue of himself and throw into the ocean. Bad luck follows the statue which is then found and used as the centerpiece of a temple. Everything cleaned up. Better than a voodoo doll!

    1. There are so many stories about this temple and its statue! Here's another one (preview of dedicated Daishi post to follow next year):

      Kawasaki was bombed to smithereens by the Americans during WWII, due to the presence of heavy industries. The main priest of the temple had a premonition (or simply used his common sense) and removed the statue to a safe place. The original temple was destroyed; the statue survived; the legend grew.

      Kōbō Daishi was a very interesting man. It's worth reading a bit about him. :)

      PS: You know he never died? His followers believe that he's entered into an eternal samadhi and is still alive on Kōya-san, awaiting the appearance of the next Buddha. Monks offer food to his body/mummy every day.

    2. At least there is a body! I am thinking at the "king under the mountain" myth that applies to so many characters (King Arthur, Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa, etc). I am pretty sure there will soon be a similar myth in Venezuela apropos of a recently passed-away historical figure...

    3. It's just occurred to me that I know very little about Venezuelan mythology, or any mythology in South American. I need to read a book or two or seventy. :)

  6. I love Japanese New Year decorations. I even made kagami mocha from beads!

    1. If your New Year decorations are as lovely as your Xmas decorations, they're exceptionally beautiful indeed. :)

  7. A temple for traffic safety?

    We need one in Malaysia!

    1. Oh before I forgot!

      It's Raimie's year next year. He's a Horse ^^

      p.s Mommy's a rabbit and Daddy's a dragon :)

    2. My favourite young man is a horse? The more I learn about him, the more I like him. His mom is a rabbit? Oh, I knew that: I've seen the ears and the tail. :D

  8. Kawasaki Daishi is very unique. I have never been to the place. You know many temples and shirine than usual Japanese. :D

  9. Oh yeah...

    It's pretty ruthless here too when it comes to taking down Xmas decoration. It's all cleared up the day after Xmas.

    And now, malls and shops are blaring Chinese New Year songs. :)

    1. I read today ... can't remember where ... that some shop has got out its Easter Eggs. I think it's in London. Ye gods.

  10. Ru-san, New Years are so wonderful in Japan that I do have found memories from my childhood. As much as I try to duplicate it in US it just isn't the same. I also miss seeing all of the decorations that goes up. If I was in Japan, I would probably go crazy photographing them all....

    1. That's exactly what I'm doing: going crazy photographing everything! ^^ It really is a very special time in Japan. I was at Sensō-ji this morning, and although the early-morning crowd was already bad enough to make me claustrophobic, it did have a wonderful buzz. :)

  11. I also want to avoid the crowds, yet I will go to Hatumode on someday of the coming year.:)
    I'm happy to be able to see their preparation on your post.
    Thank you and have a happy New Year!

    1. I went to Sensō-ji this morning, and I'll go again ... let's see ... probably on the 3rd, either very early or very late.

      Happy New Year, Haricot-san!

  12. Hi! Wishing you a Happy New Year. It is said that about 13 million people visited at ISE Jingu shrine this year. I hope you will buy a TV set and will watch only nonfiction TV programs.

    1. Happy year of the horse, Minoru-sensei! I don't need a TV, because I can explore Japan via your blog and photos! :)

  13. Great info. Thank for the information. Happy New Year, 2014

    1. All the best for the year of the horse, CQUEK! ^^

  14. I was stunned by the results of the visitors in huge numbers! Impressive!

    The Kodamatsu is so unique and nice.



    1. Happy year of the horse, Twilight Man! I hope you get a chance to visit Japan this year! ^^

  15. Happy year of Horse, Ru!

    I make it a point never to go to a shrine or jinja on new years day because I don't really go for religious reasons. It's more of a cultural thing for me so sometime during the first week is good enough for me! I think I'm going to a temple in Kurashiki this year with my sister :D

    Wishing you a fabulous year filled with old temples & shrines, warm days, and interesting books! x

  16. 明けましておめでとうございます,カオリーさん!:)

    My crowd tolerance level seems to be particularly low this New Year. I've avoided shrines and temples so far; as a matter of fact, it's been a very quiet New Year mostly spent at home. That's good, too, because it's been a very welcome rest.

    My wish for you: warm days, interesting books, fun expeditions, many smiles and lots of Starbucks! ^^

    1. Sounds like a perfect new years holiday, Ru! If that includes a special Haagen-datz or two, even better!

      One of the reasons I love that my parents live in such a rural area is for just that reason. I was sighing in content yesterday, reading by the sea under the warm sun ;)

      Also, you know me too well! That is exactly what I hope for this year! Thank you! x



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