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Hatsumōde, the first shrine visit of the new year

Now that Christmas is over, it's time to prepare for Japan's *real* celebration, New Year.

Overnight, as if by magic, the Christmas decorations were taken down and traditional New Year's decorations appeared. I always imagine that thousands of elves, or perhaps kappa?, descend on the city and ruthlessly replace every Christmas tinsel with green pine branches.

This is called a kadomatsu or "pine gate". You see it at the entrances of
buildings, shrines and temples.

I have mixed emotions about Christmas in Japan. The day itself has no religious meaning for me, but I've come to dislike the merciless consumerism that accompanies it. That, however, is precisely why I prefer the Japanese version: it's 100% pure capitalism with no hypocrisy, pious posturing or bickering about Merry Christmas vs Happy Holidays.

It also includes romance: a dinner in a very expensive French restaurant, followed – presumably – by a romp that doesn't exactly feature a virgin birth.

Anyway. New Year.

Japan has many New Year's traditions, including hatsumōde (初詣) or the first shrine/temple visit of the year. It's mostly done within the first three days of the year, which means places of worship are jam-packed.

Sensō-ji at night

Sensō-ji with New Year's decorations

Worshippers praying at Sensō-ji over New Year

Not all shrines are created equal, of course, which means the privileged ones are raking it in. According to a Kyōto Chūō Kinko Bank survey conducted in 2008, visitors contribute an average of ¥320 per person during hatsumōde. You can do your own calculations of the shrines' total income based on these visitor figures for the first three days of 2013 (based on data supplied by Mapple):

1. Meiji Jingū in Tokyo 3,13 million
2. Naritasan in Chiba 3 million
3. Kawasaki Daishi in Kawasaki 2,98 million
4. Sensō-ji in Tokyo 2,81 million
5. Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto 2,7 million
6. Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū in Kamakura 2,55 million
7. Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka 2,35 million
8. Atsuta Jingū in Nagoya 2,3 million
9. Hikawa Jinja in Ōmiya
 2,07 million
10. Dazaifu Tenman-gū in Fukuoka 2 million

I've been to all of them except Sumiyoshi, Atsuta and Dazaifu; but the only one I've visited during the New Year stampede is my backyard temple, Sensō-ji. Even then I cheated: I went late at night or very early in the morning. You couldn't force me into the fray of the peak time crowd even if you threatened to burn my book collection.

I haven't written about all of them either, but you can read more about Sensō-ji and Naritasan.

Incidentally, you can pray for very specific benefits at some of these places: Sensō-ji and Kanda Myōjin for business prosperity (the latter also for victories), Atago Jinja in Kyoto and Minato for career success, Tokyo Daijingū in Iidabashi for romantic success, all Tenman-gū shrines for academic success and Yushima Tenman-gū hyper-specifically if you want to pass the entrance exam of the University of Tokyo.

I usually go walkabout to all the major shrines and temples in the shitamachi during the New Year's period. It's called "covering your butt for all eventualities".

This year I visited Kawasaki Daishi for the first time, but I went in the week before New Year because I wanted to avoid the crowds. It was good timing, because I could watch the temple prepare for the deluge: ojiisan preparing kadomatsu, food stall owners setting up their stalls, young (apprentice?) monks sweeping furiously with bamboo rakes.

Preparing kadomatsu at Kawasaki Daishi

Preparing kadomatsu at Kumano Jinja in Shinjuku

They haven't been dressed in their pine and straw jackets yet.

I want to do a separate post about Kawasaki Daishi, but in short, it was allegedly inspired by Kūkai  (774–835), posthumously known as Kōbō Daishi, the famous monk who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism. Just think of him as the Jesus Christ of Japan, and you'll have a fairly good idea of his impact.

According to legend, he carved a statue of himself in his 42nd year, which is known as a yakudoshi ( year of bad luck) for men. When he'd finished it, he cast it into the ocean, and then revealed its whereabouts in a dream to a Hirama Kanenori, a retainer of the powerful Minamoto clan. Hirama imported a priest from Kōyasan and founded a temple called Heiken-ji (平間), which is popularly called Kawasaki Daishi (川崎大) after the main reason for its existence.
The temple still has the legendary statue.

Walking towards Kawasaki Daishi

The main gate at Kawasaki Daishi

The main gate from the other side

The main temple building at Kawasaki Daishi

To this day the temple is famous for the benefits it bestows on its worshippers as well as its fire (護摩 goma) ritual when sacred sticks of wood (護摩木 gomagi) bearing religious inscriptions and petitioners' specific requests are burned in a sacred fire.

It's also particularly famous for providing traffic safety; as a matter of fact, its reputation in this field is so vast that it has a massive separate temple constructed specifically for this purpose.

This is the temple where you pray for traffic safety
at Kawasaki Daishi.

Transport companies send their entire fleets here to be blessed.

What did I see when I walked to the traffic safety temple?

Clearly Tokyo's mamachari cyclists have never visited this temple.

The main act is on New Year's Eve, and the curtain rises at midnight. If you're feeling brave enough and if your ski jacket is warm enough … jump in. I'm not going to include access maps to these places of worship. They're famous, reams of text have been written about them, they all have websites (many in English). Go ye forth, Google and conquer.


I love the colours and textures of straw ropes.

Bamboo rake spotted at Zōjō-ji

An empty food stall at Zōjō-ji, waiting forlornly for customers

New Year's decoration

Kagami mochi

Kanda Myōjin is also popular over New Year, especially
among businessmen.

Hikawa Jinja in Saitama

Straw rope decoration and pine branches at Kawasaki Daishi

Shop selling souvenirs at Kawasaki Daishi

Next year is the year of the horse.

Food stalls setting up at Kawasaki Daishi

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