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Swing yourself into good luck at Ana Hachiman-gū

I'm not superstitious. I firmly believe that chocolate ensures mental health and books bring eternal happiness, and that's why I gather as much of both as I can, but that's science, not superstition. Don't you dare argue with me.

That doesn't mean I don't find superstitions interesting. Anything that humankind applies to explain what it doesn’t understand yet – or should that be to understand what it can't explain yet? – any fire that the talking ape lights in an attempt to keep the darkness at bay interests me, be it religion, mythology, superstition or folktales.

Why are we always asking why? That's what I want to know. Anyway.

When I heard about a shrine in Waseda that has a "return of spring = change in fortune = swing from the negative to the positive" festival, complete with charms and whatnot, plus a quirky combination of astronomy and astrology, I toddled along.

It's held at Ana Hachiman-gū (穴八幡宮), and it’s called Ichiyō Raifuku (一陽来), literally the return of spring, figuratively a change in fortune. It starts on the winter solstice, 22 December, and continues until 3 February. That's Setsubun, which is the day before Risshun, which is the official start of spring according to Japan's traditional lunar calendar.

The main entrance of Ana Hachiman-gū. You can see a statue of a yabusame archer on the left.

Winter solstice is (scientific fact) the shortest day and longest night of the year when (wishful thinking) everything changes: cold becomes warmer, dark becomes brighter, and it must follow, as the night the day, that bad luck will become good luck.

Since the sun changes direction on the solstice, good luck also changes direction, but fear not! You can buy a charm that shows you exactly in which direction you should head to find good luck, the end of the rainbow, the nearest konbini that sells Smirnoff Ice. Presumably if you put this charm in your wallet, it will swing from empty to full.

Nothing to do with horses or lucky directions. I spotted him on the shrine's main gate and couldn't help smiling:
it's difficult to look fierce while holding a flower in your mouth. 

What amuses me about this particular charm is that winter solstice means only one thing in Japan: the real cold is about to begin, and the really bad "do I still have fingers?" freeze usually hits in February. Even longer days i.e. more sunshine is debatable, because from January to April it's one dismal grey day after another.

I also grinned when I realized that this year's lucky direction is 南微, pronounced nanbitō. That required a bit of Googling, and it turns out that these lucky directions are based on old Chinese astronomy (or astrology) rather than the Western cardinal directions. Nanbitō, as far as I can figure out, is halfway between south and south-south-east.

An explanation from the shrine's website

Not my personal lucky direction then, because that would be as the crow flies to London. 

No, what made me grin was imagining your average Tokyoite finding that direction. Rather tell them to stand in front of exit 43(b) at Shinjuku Station, next to 7-Eleven, and look across the street, between the koban on the right and one iPhone width to the left of the AKB-forty-whatnot billboard. Then they'll find it.

Older people might know where north it, because you don't sleep with your head in that direction – here be demons! – but the rest of the city? Ha bloody ha. Somehow I don't see them using these techniques.

I didn't buy my own charm because no way on this planet would I stand in a queue for two hours (yes, the shrine was that crowded), but I found this picture on the internet:


I've saved the best part for last. Horses! All Hachiman-gū shrines are dedicated to Hachiman, the god of war and archery, but this Waseda shrine has particularly close links to yabusame, or horseback archery: in 1728, Tokugawa Yoshimune ordered the shrine to practice yabusame as a prayer to heal his sick son.

The shrine continues the ritual: every year on Sports Day (the second Monday in October), archers and their horses parade through the area and then have a contest in nearby Toyama Park. You can see a statue of an archer at the shrine's entrance, and two horse statues in its main gate.

Above and below: a statue of an archer and the horse statues in the main gate




Talking of the Tokugawa family, just next to Ana Hachiman-gū is a temple called Hōjō-ji (放生寺), where the famous family prayed for several generations. As a matter of fact, the temple sports the Tokugawa crest on its roof. Since it's so close to the shrine – you could refer to the two places of worship as fraternal twins – it also takes part in the Ichiyō Raifuku celebration. I've read that the cheerful faces on its roof (instead of the usual scowling demons) symbolize "the swing to the positive". See? They look positively beatific.


Smile forth, says I, and let us hope spring arrives soon. Despite the fact that we've been blessed with a warmish winter, my southern soul longs for spring and summer.

Soon. Please?

The torii at the shrine's side entrance is decorated with 10 000-year-old
turtles called mannengame, symbolizing a long life.



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