Saturday, 4 January 2014


Hatsumode, in plain English, is the first visit to a shinto shrine in the new year. Some people choose to visit a buddhist temple, but my hosts followed the shinto tradition, so off to a shrine we went.

Here's something interesting about hatsumode. In the West, on new year's eve people dance and party all night long. In Japan, instead of drinking and partying, people gather at shrines and temples and wait to ring in the new year there, on holy ground. At midnight the bells at buddhist temples ring 108 times. Why 108 exactly? Because according to the buddhist belief, that's how many earthly sins those weak humans have.

Some of those weak humans don't want to fight the crowds at shrines and temples on new year's day, so they delay their first visit until the second or even the third day of January. That's what my lazy hosts did.

There are many famous shrines in Japan, and every town and village have their own main shrine in the district. We didn't go to such a shrine. Instead, we visited a local shrine dedicated to those who died serving Japan during the times of war. There are many such war shrines throughout Japan, and the most famous is, without a doubt, Yasukuni Jinja in Tokyo.

Picture taken on 15th August, anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II

It's the controversial shrine where some of Japan's World War 2 criminals are enshrined along with millions of other people (both soldiers and civilians) who died fighting for their country. Whenever a high ranking government official visits Yasukuni, Korea and China get very upset.

No, we didn't go to Yasukuni. We went to a local shrine serving the same purpose. This one is called Tochigi Gokoku Shrine and is located in the city of Utsunomiya.

Before we reached the main shrine building, we needed to prepare ourselves properly. You can do that at temizuya - a small structure with a water basin and ladles. At some shrines you get to see fancy dragon statues spewing water into the basin, but not at this Gokoku.

So what do you do at temizuya? You fill the ladle with water and wash your left hand first, then your right hand, and then your mouth. And boom, you're purified now. You can enter the temple grounds and go and pray.

How do you pray in the shinto tradition? Here, I can tell you. First you approach the main shrine building. You toss a coin into the collection box out front. You ring the bell.

Then you bow twice, you clap your hands twice, you lower your head, close your eyes and think whatever it is you want the gods to hear. When you are finished, you bow one more time, and that's it. You're good to go.

During the first 3 days of January you can also get a ritual drink of sake. Ha! That's one ritual I am sure that many people love to follow.

You can also buy your omikuji (fortune telling paper) for the year, and if the fortune is not so lucky, you can simply leave at the shrine hoping that in this way you can leave your bad luck behind. You can also leave your omikuji even if your fortune is good, as thanks to the gods.

The wooden tablets with the images of horses are called ema.

You write your wishes on them and then hang them at the shrine, offering your prayers to the gods. Where do you get all those things from? Do you make them yourself at home? Of course not. You buy them at a special shop at the shrine. It's probably the busiest time of the year for them.

After we prayed, read our fortunes and tied them to a tree, wrote our prayers on ema tablets, we felt a strange sense of purpose. The feeling you get when you follow an ancient tradition even without fully understanding its ancient meaning.

And then it was done. With our hatsumode completed, we still had some time left to explore the shrine grounds. There were many more minor worship points dedicated to the fallen soldiers of Japan. But not only soldiers. Look what I have found!

A special place honoring the horses who served their country during the time of war. I must admit I was very touched and very grateful. Thank you, the people of Japan , for not forgetting about us.

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