What’s That You Say? It’s Hatsumode

Three Experiences of “The First Shrine Visit”

This article originally featured in the February 2021 issue of Connect.

“New Year, New Book”

Chelanna White (Kyōto)

In my first year on JET, as the new year approached, I learned about hatsumōde—the first temple or shrine visit in the new year, and how some people lined up before midnight to sometimes literally ring in the new year by hitting a temple bell. I tasked my husband with picking out a temple or shrine for us to have our first hatsumōde experience at. One of his eikaiwa (English conversation class) students suggested Seimei Shrine. The student told him about Abe no Seimei, the onmyōji honored there. Onmyōji were sort of government-sanctioned magicians, practicing astrology and divination. Abe no Seimei is the most famous one. He has appeared in manga, movies, and even mobile games. Although he was a real person, the tales of his abilities have turned him into a more legendary character, a sort of Japanese Merlin. His abilities and exploits are recorded in famous Heian-era texts such as the Konjaku Monogatarishū (Anthology of Tales from the Past).

It was the perfect night for a visit to Seimei Shrine. The full moon shone down brightly, adding to the magical atmosphere. Five-pointed stars, representing the five classical Chinese elements of water, wood, earth, fire, and metal, could be found throughout the grounds, from plaques hanging on the torii gates, to the shape of a well (used by tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyu!), to adorning all manner of lucky trinkets called omamori. And of course, on the goshuin (seal stamp).

Having filled my first goshuinchō (seal stamp book) in the five months I had been in Japan, I decided that I would save starting a new one for the new year. Hatsumōde was the perfect opportunity to start a new collection. New year, new goshuinchō. This one was black, and featured Hello Kitty in a kimono on the cover. Adorable! The woman who I tried to hand the book to thought so, too. Unfortunately, I could not get the stamp in my book. Instead, they had loose papers which could be pasted in later. Some shrines and temples do this year-round, while others do it just on special occasions when they expect many visitors, such as the first few days of the new year.

I have participated in hatsumōde every year since then, visiting a different temple or shrine each time. I have visited Kurodani Temple, Seiganji Temple, and Kitano Tenmangū Shrine. This year I nearly broke my tradition of “new year, new book” since I have not completed the goshuinchō I started last year. But I have started collecting loose pages in a “goshuin holder”, which is like a cross between a goshuinchō and an old-school photo album, and in addition to the five goshuinchō I have already filled, my holder is now full, so this year’s hatsumōde goshuin will take the first page in my new holder. The tradition lives on!

| Cover Photo: This goshuin is one of Chelanna favorites. She obtained it at Hozoji Shrine in Kyoto.

Chelanna is the prefectural advisor for Kyōto, where she lives with her husband and three goldfish. She really, really likes Hello Kitty.

Photos by Chelanna White

Hatsumōde in Cold Stony Streets to a Hot Sandy Beach

Alice French (Yamagata)

In my first year on JET, as the new year approached, I learned about hatsumōde—the first temple or shrine visit in the new year, and how some people lined up before midnight to sometimes literally ring in the new year by hitting a temple bell. I tasked my husband with picking out a temple or shrine for us to have our first hatsumōde experience at. One of his eikaiwa (English conversation class) students suggested Seimei Shrine. The student told him about Abe no Seimei, the onmyōji honored there. Onmyōji were sort of government-sanctioned magicians, practicing astrology and divination. Abe no Seimei is the most famous one. He has appeared in manga, movies, and even mobile games. Although he was a real person, the tales of his abilities have turned him into a more legendary character, a sort of Japanese Merlin. His abilities and exploits are recorded in famous Heian-era texts such as the Konjaku Monogatarishū (Anthology of Tales from the Past).

Having filled my first goshuinchō (seal stamp book) in the five months I had been in Japan, I decided that I would save starting a new one for the new year. Hatsumōde was the perfect opportunity to start a new collection. New year, new goshuinchō. This one was black, and featured Hello Kitty in a kimono on the cover. Adorable! The woman who I tried to hand the book to thought so, too. Unfortunately, I could not get the stamp in my book. Instead, they had loose papers which could be pasted in later. Some shrines and temples do this year-round, while others do it just on special occasions when they expect many visitors, such as the first few days of the new year.

I have participated in hatsumōde every year since then, visiting a different temple or shrine each time. I have visited Kurodani Temple, Seiganji Temple, and Kitano Tenmangū Shrine. This year I nearly broke my tradition of “new year, new book” since I have not completed the goshuinchō I started last year. But I have started collecting loose pages in a “goshuin holder”, which is like a cross between a goshuinchō and an old-school photo album, and in addition to the five goshuinchō I have already filled, my holder is now full, so this year’s hatsumōde goshuin will take the first page in my new holder. The tradition lives on!

Chelanna is the prefectural advisor for Kyōto, where she lives with her husband and three goldfish. She really, really likes Hello Kitty.
Since coming to Japan, as a Brit, I have found it difficult to part with the typically rowdy, prosecco-fuelled New Year’s celebrations I am used to in favour of a, grantedly far more civilised, visit to the local shrine. However, of the three New Year’s I have so far spent in Japan, I am proud to say that I have twice managed to drag my (rather hungover) self to receive my fortune for the upcoming year, in keeping with Japan’s hatsumōde tradition.

My first experience was during my year abroad in Kyōto. On a bitingly cold January morning, I found myself at Yasaka Shrine in Kyōto’s historic Gion District, queuing for an omikuji (fortune) with my friend, surrounded by many other, equally cold, shrine-goers. The atmosphere at the shrine was one of excitement and anticipation (it’s worth noting that this was January 2018, before the world had started ending). I chose my omikuji by sticking my hand in a box and drawing out a wooden stick, which I then exchanged for a folded piece of paper at the register. I have to be honest and say that I can’t actually remember the contents of the fortune, but I do remember that it was 中吉 (medium luck), which I think I was pretty satisfied with.

The highlight of this hatsumōde trip was not this mediocre fortune, however, but the seemingly endless food stalls (yatai) that lined the path to the shrine. The stalls often come out at festivals and special occasions, but there seemed to be an especially large variety of goods on offer for this New Year’s celebration. My most vivid memory is enjoying a very delicious, if slightly obscene, chocolate-covered banana on a stick.

My second hatsumōde experience took place under very different conditions. I was in sunny Okinawa for the winter break last year, and made a very sweaty trip to a shrine near our hostel in order to see what 2020 had in store for me (little did I know). The sunshine and sea breeze were a stark contrast to the freezing greyness I’d experienced in Kyōto two years earlier. I remember being struck by the large number of middle-aged men in suits at the shrine. I was surprised not only by their attire, which must have been swelteringly hot, considering the almost 30 degree Celsius heat, but also by the fact that they had come on a work trip. For me, New Year’s had always been a time for friends, family, and forgetting about work duties completely. As my accompanying Japanese friend explained, however, in Japan, the first shrine visit of the year is important not only for individuals and families, but for companies too. During the first week of January, senior management from many companies will visit their local shrine, in full business dress, in order to receive a blessing of prosperity for the upcoming year. I have heard that, in Yamagata Prefecture, where I am currently living, some workplaces even ask for visits from the local yamabushi mountain monks, in order to cleanse the office and bestow it with good luck for the next 12 months. I think it’s fair to say that such luck would have been very much needed throughout the rollercoaster that was 2020!

I still have my omikuji paper from my shrine visit last year, and writing this prompted me to look at it and reflect. It came with a rather handy, and incredibly entertaining, English translation on the back. One of my favourite parts was a section labelled “Removal,” under which was written, somewhat cryptically, “The sooner, the better.” To this day, I am not sure exactly what this referred to, but I like to think that it was an indirect way of telling me to finally take the plunge and invest in laser hair removal. As for the omikuji’s overall fortune, it told me that “Hard time has gone,” and “you are becoming happier and happier.” Considering the impending coronavirus pandemic and ensuing global turmoil, I cannot entirely agree that “hard time” had gone in January 2020. However, despite all of the chaos, I did find a lot of happiness last year, and hope to carry it over into this year too. Whether that was thanks to my omikuji or not is up for debate, but I like to think that it, maybe, played a part.

Alice French is a second-year CIR from Cambridge, England, based at the Prefectural Office in Yamagata. When she is not singing in the shower or taking pictures of sunsets for Instagram, she can be found hiking or skiing on one of Yamagata’s many mountains.

 

Mountain Prayers Among the Snowy Cedars

Haroon Hussain (Tōkyō)

Since coming to Japan I have tried to follow some of the traditions which are held here, one of the biggest being visiting a shrine for the new year. The first year I went to Senso-ji in Asakusa, the second year I went to Hiroshima on my own and explored the city alone. This year, I was in Nagano Prefecture alongside friends and some locals and we all went together to visit Togakushi Shrine, which is perched at the base of Mount Togakushi in Myōkō-Togakushi Renzan National Park.

The entrance starts from the huge traditional torii gate, leading to a path surrounded by huge Japanese cedar trees. The night before had heavy snowfall, so the path and trees were coated in a beautiful white, making this hatsumōde a little more special than the usual. Two pathways had already been made by people who had already visited the shrine before us. Though the snow was flattened, it still had some height to it and the journey was a little more tiring than could’ve been any other time of year.

There are three different shrines at Togakushi and the trail goes on for around two kilometres from the entrance before it reaches the upper shrine, Oku-sha. Unfortunately, the lower and middle shrines were closed off due to the snow, but we were still able to climb up to the upper shrine. After what felt like 40 minutes of walking on an uphill, snow-laden and sometimes very slippery path, we finally reached the top. There were a few locals already at the top praying and were behind us taking a moment’s rest as they waited for the queue to go down. After taking a breather myself while planted in a fresh pile of powder, I threw some coins into the saisen (money offering) box and made a short prayer for a better year and less coronavirus. My trip to the shrine ended after I bought myself a goshuin. With our hatsumōde adventure finished, we walked back down the slippery slopes and onward into 2021.

Haroon is a third-year British JET based in Tōkyō. He plays League of Legends as though he is going to eventually climb out of silver, but he probably won’t. Should definitely be using his time better.