Hatsumode is also known as Hatsumoude and relates to the first visit to a Shinto shrine during the Japanese New Year holiday. Although this festival is related to visiting Shinto sites some people will also use it to visit a Buddhist temple, particularly if the latter is more convenient to visit. Most people in Japan will conduct their visit between the 1st and 3rd of January, this is a time when the majority of the population are on a national holiday. Wishes for the New Year are made using omamori (charms or amulets), these are bought in preparation for the year ahead and old ones are taken to the shrine to be burned. Throughout the three days of the holiday it is commonplace to encounter long lines of people waiting their turn at the major shrines throughout Japan.

Ritual

During the New Year, the house is cleaned, any debts paid off and friends and family are visited with gifts being exchanged. The early morning of New Years Day is traditionally a time for domestic worship; this is followed by the taking of sake which contains edible flakes of gold, seen as a special food of celebration. During the period of Hatsumode it is one of the rare occasions of the year to see men wearing a full kimono. The actual act of worship is in itself very brief although the act of waiting can involve several hours of queuing.

The History of Hatsumode

Hatsumode was originally known as toshigomori. For that ritual it was customary for the head of each family to stay overnight at a shrine over the New Year and pray. During the Meiji period (September 1868 until July 1912) this custom was divided into two parts comprising the evening and the following morning and this led to how hatsumode is celebrated today.

Most shrines remain open, 24 hours from midnight on the 31st of December through to the same time on the 3rd of January. Millions of Japanese will visit the shrines during these three days and they can become very crowded. The best time to visit to avoid the crowds is between 3am and 5am each morning.

Omikuji

An omikuji is a written oracle predicting your year ahead. You can buy them at shrines and should you have a prediction of bad luck you should tie it onto a tree within the grounds of the shrine hoping that the prediction is then overturned in your favour. Omikuji go into detail about your life, business and love for the year ahead. You should make a small donation of around 5 yen when buying your prediction. Many shrines have coin-operated machines that dispense the small rolled up pieces of paper. Some shrines have them available in English.

The omikuji contains a blessing or curse, ranging across 7 degrees of blessing or five for a curse. There is also a listing of fortune that can involve desire, travel, business, and romance, illness, lost items or even marriage.

Cleaning Ritual

It is customary to have bathed yourself before visiting the shrine. You should also clean your hands before you pray, this is known as Chozuya. The ritual cleaning involves using a ladle of water to first rinse your left hand, then you should rinse your right hand, before you rinse your mouth. Only one ladleful of water should be used as you should not return the ladle into the water until you have completed your cleaning ritual.

Ritual for Prayer

Do not disturb anyone currently praying, wait until they have finished. Stand in front of the hall of worship, nod your head and sound the bell. Throw some money into the offering box and bow twice. Clap your hands twice before placing your hands together and praying. You should then bow once and leave.

The most popular shrines to visit

There are countless numbers of temples and shrines to visit across Japan. You do not have to visit the most popular sites when paying your respects during hatsumode, your most local shrine will be sufficient and probably less crowded. If you prefer to go where the largest crowds will be gathered here are some of the most sacred spots across Japan.

Ise Grand Shrine

The Ise Grand Shrine located in Mie Prefecture is classed as being the holiest of Japan’s Shinto shrines. The Inner Shrine is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu while the Outer Shrine is dedicated to Toyouke, the goddess to agriculture, industry and any of life’s necessities. When visiting here it is best to begin at the Outer Shrine which is about a five minute walk from Ise-she station before continuing by bus a few kilometres to the Inner Shrine. This site is so sacred and important that the position of chief priest or priestess must be someone hailing from the Japanese Imperial Family. The architecture and surrounds may appear to be simple and somewhat minimalist but the complex has about 125 smaller shrines making it one of Japan’s most spiritual locations.

Izumo Taisha

This shrine located in Shimane Prefecture is dedicated to love. Whether you have not yet found the love of your life, hoping to save a troubled relationship or soon hoping to walk down the aisle, it is the place to go. It is a shrine steeped in history as one of Japan’s most ancient shrines and located just a few minutes from Izumo Taisha-mae Station. The Shinto god of love and marriage, Okinunushi is enshrined here. When you pay your respects here you should clap four times instead of the usual two, this is because you are also praying for your partner even if you have not yet met them.

Itsukushima Shrine

This shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture is famous for its torii in the water and is said to be one of the most beautiful views in Japan. Also known as Miyajima, this shrine on Itsukushima Island is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex is built over water and its purity is maintained by not allowing births or deaths to take place on the island. Pregnant women or those close to death must leave to maintain that state of purity.

Kiyomizu-dera

Kiyomizu Dera

Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto Prefecture is one of the most popular temples for tourists to visit in Japan. There are several reasons for its popularity including cherry blossom, autumn leaves and hatsumode. It has a long rich history full of legends as well as having a famous waterfall known as Otowa. The waterfall has three different streams of water giving out luck in the form of longevity, love and academic success.

Sumiyoshi Taisha

Sumiyoshi Taisha located in Osaka Prefecture is one of Japan’s most visited shrines during hatsumode with millions visiting here every year. The Sumiyoshi Shrines are dedicated to the three gods of sailing and the seas, there are more than 2,000 of them across the country and this is the head Sumiyoshi shrine. It has a distinctive style of architecture with a straight rather than curved roof. You can easily visit here, it is just a short walk from Sumiyoshitaisha, Sumiyoshikoen or Sumiyoshitoriimae Stations.

Mount Koya

Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists. The mountain is full of temples giving the area a feeling of holiness. Each day from January 1-3 at 9am is a ceremony for world peace, prosperity and the continuation of Buddhism. There are similar ceremonies at other, smaller temples.