Traditional New Year’s festivities in Japan are special indeed. It’s usually a family time, with visits to shrines (often in traditional garb), special symbolic foods and sake toasts, and various other seasonal activities. While we see less and less of the traditions these days, many of them can still be experienced and enjoyed, if you know where to look.
During the first three days of the new year, one place where you are sure to find New Year’s festivities is any Shinto shrine. One of the most important New Year’s traditions has long been to greet the gods as early as possible in the new year, a practice the Japanese call hatsumode. For this reason, one of the most interesting times to visit a shrine is exactly at midnight on new year’s eve, when the most ardent pay their respects. The bigger the shrine, the more interesting the goings on.
Mishima Taisha, located less than a kilometer from JR Mishima station in Shizuoka Prefecture, is regarded as the number one shrine of the former Izu Province, a major religious center. Founded more than 1,200 years ago on Miyake-jima, the shrine has been in its current location since the mid-11th century. One hundred years later, Minamoto Yoritomo, Japan’s first shogun, is said to have prayed here while he was campaigning against his arch-enemies, the Taira (Heike) clan.
The current main shrine building was built in 1866; the shrine site also includes a small museum and various subordinate shrines. The shrine layout, with its entrance pointing in the direction of the sea, a shrine approach that includes a bridge across a small pond, and mountains behind it, is in accordance with feng shui principles.
We thought we might “beat the crowds” by arriving around 11:30 to be close to the front of the line of worshipers at midnight. It is impossible to worship at a shrine between sundown on New Year’s eve and midnight. One can enter the shrine grounds but cannot get close to the principal shrine until midnight.
To our surprise, there were food stalls lined up at the entrance to the shrine ground, of the type one sees for Japanese festivals. While there are always stalls and items for sale at a shrine during New Year’s, we’d never seen so many. When we arrived, most were just setting up and not yet “open for business”.
We proceeded into the shrine grounds, across the bridge and through the inner gate. Everywhere we could see various other preparations underway. In one area, a closely controlled bonfire was burning. This would be where people were disposing of their used amulets and other good luck items–it’s traditional to burn the used ones and buy new ones for the year ahead.
At the center of the inner shrine courtyard is a mai-den (dance stage). We were directed to proceed around it to the left, where others were already waiting for the stroke of midnight before they advanced further. We had about 20 minutes to wait, so we amused ourselves by people watching. There were couples, families, and groups of friends, chatting amongst themselves as they waited. Further to our left we could see a covered walkway and beyond that one of the shrine’s administrative buildings, the inside well lit and busy.
After a few minutes more, we noticed a line of priests and other shrine attendants, led by lantern-bearing acolytes, under the covered walkway heading for the shrine.
Catching sight of them, a murmur of excitement went up from the crowd and it attempted to surge forward, only to be stopped by other attendants holding them behind a rope line. One held a polite sign asking people to wait a little longer.
At exactly the stroke of midnight, a priest stood on the shrine’s steps and waved his sacred pom pom over the heads of the worshipers, bestowing a blessing on us/them. After those formalities were complete, worshipers were allowed to approach the shrine in groups of a couple hundred, while others were held again behind a rope line with the polite sign asking them to wait their turn.
The traffic flow was strictly controlled, always moving clockwise. That is, worshipers came in from the left and left to the right when they finished their prayers. The exit route was lined with stalls selling a fresh supply of amulets and other good luck objects.
These continued until we had passed out of the shrine’s inner courtyard. Then the food stalls started in. Such a selection of treats we had never seen at a shrine for new year’s. It would seem one of the most popular items was steamed potatoes slathered in butter.
Okonomiyaki, grilled chicken and the ever-popular chocolate covered bananas were among the other treats available.
But comestibles were not the only items on sale. There were also games and amusements, to lend a fair-like atmosphere. Perhaps the operators were banking on the fact that most people, having finished their prayers and purchased their lucky charms for the coming year, would be willing to try their hand at a game of chance.
By this time we’d had our fill of worship, amulet shopping, people watching and enjoying the amusement stalls, so headed home, happy that our new year was off to a great start. I wish for you the same. Happy new year!
© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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