Japanese New Year holidays usually start from December 29 and go until January 3, but depending on the year and one’s job it can start as early ad December 27th and go until January 8th. During this time, people are busy cleaning their houses in the osoji ritual before New Year, making or buying osechi ryori and other special New Year food, paying their respects and visiting family and friends to exchange gifts, and so on. In the new year, doing things for ‘the first time’ in that year hold a great meaning – your first dream, the first sunrise, etc. One of the most common practices is to spend one of the first 3 days of the new year paying a visit to a shrine. This is better known as “Hatsumode.”
Throngs of people who visit the shrine on the first few days of January create a busy festive atmosphere. Many people visiting the shrines wear kimono, as there are few chances to wear traditional clothes most of the year. There are all sorts of charms (omamori) and talismans which are on sale for people to use in the hopes of having good luck in the new year. Old ones can be brought to the shrine so they can be burned, hence you might spot bonfires on the shrine grounds. This is a sign of respect to the deity who helped the person during the previous year. Simply throwing the talismans away is highly discouraged for being disrespectful.
Temples which attract many visitors yearly include Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka and Tsuruoka Hachimangu in Kamakura. There are often long lines of people at these major shrines. But any shrine is good for hatsumode, even the smallest local one. Japanese people sometimes prefer their local shrine, some people go back to the shrines they visited with their family as children, some people prefer a certain deity and the shrines dedicated to them, some people have a special thing to pray for like love or money or school so they choose a shrine known for that, and so on. You can choose any shrine, anywhere, regardless of where you live or if you are Japanese or not.
Hatsumode is followed by a celebration (normally at home) of food and drinking sake, with some people in big cities recently also opting for fancy restaurants to treat themselves.
Another custom for the new year is identifying your luck for the upcoming year by choosing your omikuji. These are fortunes that are written on small pieces of paper which are literally known as “sacred lot.” You can get one by paying a small offering (the price may change depending on the shrine you visit). You can randomly choose your omikuji by drawing a stick with a number from inside a box, or just by lucky drawing directly from a box of omikuji fortunes. Everyone hopes for good luck but if you receive an omikuji that says ‘bad luck’, the custom is to tie it onto the tree within the shrine grounds so that your luck improves.
Most omikuji are of course in Japanese, but very recently some major shrines visited by many tourists have also introduced omikuji in English. You can either search for these, or ask someone to translate yours.
For a quick interpretation, every omikuji should state the general blessing at the beginning before it goes into detail. The kanji characters are quite simple so even if you cannot read Japanese you might be able to figure out this part. Here is a list of most common omikuji:
Great luck (dai-kichi, 大吉)
Middle/moderate luck (chū-kichi, 中吉)
Small/little luck (shō-kichi, 小吉)
Half-luck (han-kichi, 半吉)
Ending luck (sue-kichi, 末吉)
Ending small luck (sue-shō-kichi, 末小吉)
Luck (kichi, 吉)
Bad luck (kyō, 凶)
Ending bad luck (sue-kyō, 末凶)
Half-bad luck (han-kyō, 半凶)
Small/little bad luck (shō-kyō, 小凶)
Very bad luck (dai-kyō, 大凶)
When visiting a shrine for hatsumode, you can basically do what you should always do when visiting a shrine – the water purification ritual, the praying and money offering in the box in front of the main hall of the shrine, etc.
In addition to omikuji, it is customary to buy a talisman (omamori) which can have many shapes and designs, one of the most popular in the new year being an arrow.
As it is a special time do, some shrines have a matsuri (festival) atmosphere, so if there food and drink stalls you can grab a hot snack or drink. Amazake (sweet rice drink) is exceptionally popular in winter and during hatsumode.
Hatsumode is a great way to start the New Year in Japan. It is not only a chance to wear kimono if you wish, but also an unforgettable experience you can’t easily find in other parts of the world.
If you want to learn more about shrines, we have you covered with this – How to Visit a Japanese Shrine – A Guide to Shrine Basics
And to learn about other New Year’s customs in Japan besides the hatsumode, read How Do Japanese Celebrate New Year – 9 Things to Know about Japan`s Oshougatsu !
・97 Things to Do in Osaka, the Japanese City of Street Food, Culture, and Comedy, in 2018
・112 Things to Do in Kyoto, a City of Culture, Tradition, and Breathtaking Beauty, in 2018
・Joya no Kane: Ring in New Year’s the Spiritual Japanese Way
: AC photo/