Before the first day of New Year, many people visit Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto to pray for good health for the entire upcoming year. This is a traditional year-end festival held from 7 pm of December 31st through 5 am of January 1st.
A large number of people attend the event and some bring home embers sacred fire which bamboo ropes are kindled in. If you prepare zoni over the fire you create with the embers at home, you can have a peaceful new year. It is also believed to ward off diseases for the coming year.
Okera is a medicinal herb also known as “Atractylis ovata.” Many Japanese believe that this herb can cast away bad energy and forces of the previous year and can also lengthen the longevity of peoples’ lives. On New Year’s Eve, the roots of the herbs are lit making the so-called Kagaribi watch fires. These are used to lit toro lanterns placed in different places within the shrine. People try to catch the flame with a small rope. Since there are only two lanterns available, it makes the place more crowded.
After lighting the rope, people swing it all the way home. The swinging is important so the fire does not go out. It is a custom to take home some of the fires’ embers which will be used to make fire at home with the aim of preparing zoni. This is a Japanese soup containing mochi rice cakes and is considered to be the most auspicious of the all the dishes eaten. You can also use the fire to light the candles in the altar. Preparing zoni over the fire created at home with the help of the shrine as well as lighting candles can give you a peaceful new year.
Yasaka Shrine is close to the Gion bus stop. If you take the No. 206 bus from JR Kyoto Station, you will reach the bus stop in about 15 minutes.
Okera-Mairi is one of the ways of attaining peace and good health for the coming year. So if you are in the Kyoto area on December 31st, do not forget to light your rope with the toro lanterns at the shrine and ensure your peace and good luck for the new year!