"Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!"

02Jan06

The New Year holiday is probably one of the most important holidays in Japan and everything shuts down to give people a chance to spend time with their families and usher in the New Year. In Japan the New Year is a time of symbolic renewal, much more intensely so than in the United States. Traditionally on New Year’s eve, people eat toshi-koshi soba, an especially long version of soba (buckwheat noodles) that is slurped down at midnight. The length of the soba is intended to symbolize the crossing over from one year to the next, kind of like a gustatory absorption of the last of the last, a small remainder that is also part of the first meal of the New Year.

Of course, not everyone is at home when the clock strikes midnight. Richard, Michelle, and I joined scores of our neighbors in a walk down to the local shrine — Kasuga-jinja — to usher in the New Year by ringing the shrine bell in order to summon the gods. This is known as hatsumode (初詣), and it marks the first visit to the shrine in the new year. The shrine is just a short walk away, located on the far slope of the hill that I assume Miyayama-cho (my neighborhood) gets its name from. When we arrived at the shrine, about 11:45, we joined the already long line that had formed outside of the torii, or shrine gate. At midnight we heard a drum being beaten on the shrine grounds, and then congratulations were given all around: “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!” We waited our turn in line, and when we reached the shrine building proper we threw our yen into the shrine collection box, pulled the rope to ring the bell, and then clapped three times in order to summon the shrine deity before giving our New Year’s prayers (which are something like sincere wishes and thanks in tone, rather than prayers of supplication and glorification). After visiting the main shrine we walked up the hill to visit the half-dozen smaller shrines dedicated to other deities and spirits, including an Inari shrine that was marked by a single, small, ceramic figurine. At each of the smaller shrines cabbages, enormous vermilion-colored carrots, and various other vegetables were presented on platters as offerings.

After our visit to the shrines we joined the crowd of people that formed a ring around a large bonfire that was centrally located in the shrine grounds. The fire was enclosed with twine and hanging gohei (zig-zag patterned paper), indicating a sacred Shinto site. While we stood by the fire keeping warm, several people approached the fire to throw in various luck-charms left over from the previous year. I think the way it works is that luck charms are actually intended to absorb bad luck, or bad spirits, and that after a year is up they lose their powers of protection because they become full. When you throw your luck-charm into the shrine fire at the end of the year, all the bad luck that has accumulated is incinerated in the fire. Favorite charms include zodiac animals and especially prepared wooden arrows, though we also saw some prayer beads thrown in the fire, and one unlucky daruma that was slowly roasting at the edge of the flames.

Of course, after visiting the fire we had to go buy some of our own good luck charms, and I now have a wooden arrow — known as a hamaya, or “evil-destroying” arrow — perched on my bookshelf, ready to throw into the fire next year. The shrine maiden who sold me the evil-destroying arrow (I know — “shrine maiden” has horribly outdated connotations, but I really don’t know what other phrase to use) sent me off with a “Gambatte kudasai!,” which is a phrase that means both “Good luck!” and “Try hard!,” a combination that I think is more worthwhile than the lottery logic of the lucky number. Right next to the charm booth is another booth where you can drink a ceremonial dish of New Year’s sake, which of course we did.

Hatsumode is a really great time — it’s intensely symbolic, but without the sense of sacred portentousness that might be expected. Instead, it feels like a proper celebration in both senses of the word — in the ancient sense of “solemnizing,” and in the more contemporary sense of the joyous outburst.

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