Do As The Japanese Do – Hatsumode 初詣

2016 is here, people, and celebrations are still continuing around the world. There’s the Ball Drop in America, the Sydney Harbour Fireworks in Australia, and come midnight bells were rung at Buddhist temples across Japan. Hatsumode (初詣) is the first shrine visit of the new year, taken by families to pray for good fortune in the coming year. Patronage starts at 12AM New Year’s Day until the 3rd January.

Living in Kyoto gives me an advantage of being able to visit many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples (there is 1600 of them after all) and Nick invited me along to take pictures at Shimogamo Shrine, one of the most important in the city which was founded in the 6th century AD. It’s one of the 17 Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, a UNESCO site and venerates a family of gods associated with thunder. The forest surrounding it (Tadasu no Mori) has never been touched by fire, despite Kyoto’s temples’ reputation for being razed. Repeatedly. Sometimes even twice.

The shrine was not as busy as I imagined, as many had ventured to Yasaka or Fushimi Inari. Through the forest we passed many stalls selling Japanese festival food and we ritually purified ourselves before entering the shrine proper. A large image of a monkey dressed up in festival garb dominated the main stage, and one of the buildings was stacked with offerings with sake from local businesses, often given with a large “donation” in exchange for patronage. Nick and I were going to pray, but the line was long and we wanted to get a move on.

People of all ages (but mostly twenty-somethings) were buying fortunes and charms, hoping to get the best of the best fortune for the oncoming year. By the time Nick and I arrived mid-morning, many not-so-good fortunes had already been tied on the ropes. The staff of the shrine were selling small decorated bamboo boards. The charms from the previous year were being burned in a large bonfire near the front torii gate, and the cinders were dancing in the air around our heads, lending to the atmosphere.

After doing a large loop, we went back out the way we came, past the stalls. Japanese festival food is all the same but the taste depends on the vendor selling it. There’s always karaage (fried stuff, usually chicken), okonomiyaki, takiyaki, takoyaki, yakisoba…seeing a pattern? Anything that can be fried on a barbecue, you’ll find it at a shrine. Nick got a green tea mochi (rice cake), and there was a stall selling fried salmon on a stick, with the head of the salmon itself in front of the stall. Thank you for your sacrifice, Mr. Maguro.

If you’re in Japan for New Year, hatsumode is one thing to do, besides seeing the first sunrise. If you’re in Kyoto you have plenty of temples to pick and choose from to visit, but if you want to try Fushimi Inari I’d advise against it, at least on the first day as crowds are horrifying.

Happy New Year everyone!


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