A new year in the land of Hitachi

Published: January 21, 2012

December 31 and January 1 in Japan witness hordes of people on the streets, making their way to shrines, temples, and matsuris (festivals). PHOTO: REUTERS

The beginning of a new year in the land of the rising sun was a very memorable experience for me. I learned a lot about Japanese culture when I spent my first new year away from my homeland hereLike the fact that Hitachi is defined by many Japanese people as the ‘rising sun’, where hi means ‘sun’ and tachi means ‘to rise’.

December 31 and January 1 saw hordes of people on the streets, making their way to shrines, temples, and matsuris (festivals).

On December 31, I made my way to Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. It is a small city full of shrines and temples with a population of approximately 1,470,000 that attracts a large number of tourists due to its historical, architectural and religious value. During the course of my stay there, I welcomed and observed every Japanese tradition related to New Year celebrations with extreme joy and excitement.

The most popular tradition is that of hatsumōde, the year’s first visit to the shrine or Budhist temple. The majority of people who take part in this ritual are Buddhists or Shintoists, but even non-religious Japanese participate in hatsumōde. Once at the shrine, the ceremony includes ringing the bell, bowing once, praying, and then bowing twice again in front of their God at the end the ritual . The commitment and dedication of the Japanese people to this practice can be traced back to centuries.

To mark the beginning of the new year at 12:00 am sharp, the shrines and temples ring bells. The time leading up to the new year is called Omisoka and experiences the joyanokane,  the ringing of a temple or shrine bell 108 times as the new year is born. The shrines and temples are overcrowded with people, welcoming the new year.

For the Japanese nation, a new year means a new start to one’s personal life. For this reason, they perform rituals like cleaning their homes, visiting friends and family, indulging in prayers and eating toshi-koshi or the End-of-Year soba (noodles).

In Kyoto, when I visited the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine to attend the matsuri at 6:00 am on January 1, I discovered another tradition; every temple and shrine sells amulets and charms to bring positivity in various aspects of life; for health, safety and happiness. Charms which help you find a ‘good ‘girlfriend or boyfriend were the youth’s favourite while amulets for safe driving, easy baby delivery and passing exams were also being sold. Both foreigners and native Japanese were buying the amulets, priced from 500 to 1,500 Yen. Traditionally, the Japanese return last year’s amulets at the shrine and buy new ones for the new year. During the hatsumōde, they also buy omikuji – a written oracle predicting one’s luck for the year. If the prediction is bad, they have to tie the omikuji to a tree in the premises of the shrine to stop the prediction from coming true . If the prediction is good, one keeps the omikuji and hopes for it to materialise.

People in Japan highly respect the culture of hatsumōde and try their best to participate in it. However, hatsumōde is not bounded by dates. A person’s very first visit to a shrine in the new year  is their hatsumōde regardless of the time or date. For this very reason, as I travelled around Osaka and Nara, after attending the elaborate celebrations in Kyoto, I found the matsuris still going on with a large number of people paying visits to the shrine.

The Japanese celebrate the New Year with the same enthusiasm with which we celebrate Eid. The streets are full of cars, public transport is overloaded and food outlets have long queues outside, an atmosphere of utter  joy and celebration in full swing.

Kanza Azeemi

Kanza Azeemi

An exchange student in Waseda University, Tokyo, studying Liberal Arts and teaching English. She is interested in social development specifically in the education sector.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Hassan

    I really Miss Nihon…Recommend

  • Parvez

    Enjoyed reading this. Shrines and temples are good but don’t miss the opportunity to study the Japanese people, there is much good to learn from them.Recommend

  • Ammar

    I didn’t go to the new year’s gathering in down town but I was watching it on tv, a very touching memorial for the Tohoku earthquake victims and unlike the rest of the world, it was a modest new year’s party this year in Japan.

    Can’t wait for the Sky tree to open this yearRecommend

  • From Tokyo

    Good article, but I would like to correct some misunderstandings below. Forgive me, the writer, but please keep in mind that my intention here is not a nitpicking.

    the fact that Hitachi is defined by many Japanese people as the ‘rising sun’, where hi means ‘sun’ and tachi means ‘to rise’.

    Though its literal meaning above is exactly right, never is the word Hitachi [日立] used at such contexts as in the phrase “the country of the rising sun”, nor it means the whole country as a regional category. “The land of Hitachi” as on the artcle title, therefore, is significantly inaccurate.

    their way to shrines, temples, and matsuris (festivals).

    Yes, definitely there is a sort of festive mood, in particular, with crowded people on lines of special street stalls for foods and sweets. While that has a lot in common with “matsuris” in other festive occasions, it is by no means “matsuri”, and usually it is neither said or thought as such.

    hatsumōde, the year’s first visit to the shrine or Budhist temple.

    Authentically (and theoretically), the ritual can be conducted only in shrines and it has nothing to do with Budhism, though nowadays people raraly care about that.

    The majority of people who take part in this ritual are Buddhists or Shintoists, but even non-religious Japanese participate in hatsumōde.

    On such matters of the custom, “the majority of people who take part in this ritual” have, in fact, a rather syncretic belief of both (or three, if the “non-religious” is included) of them, not singular one of either. So, it’s not like Muslims and Chiristians in Pakistan who are thought to go to masjids and churchs respectively on such ocassions.

    To mark the beginning of the new year at 12:00 am sharp, the shrines and temples ring bells.

    the joyanokane, the ringing of a temple or shrine bell 108 times as the new year is born.

    Some points need correction. The joyanokane 1) is rung in only in temples, not shrine, 2) starts far back before 12:00, and ends by the 108th ringing soon after 12:00 passed, and 3) originally is rung for the relief of 108 worldly desires, not to mark the new year coming.

    The time leading up to the new year is called Omisoka

    Omisoka is the entire day, not “the time”, leading up to the new year

    Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine to attend the matsuri at 6:00 am on January 1

    hatsumōde is not bounded by dates. A person’s very first visit to a shrine in the new year is their hatsumōde regardless of the time or date.

    Nope, hatsumōde is traditionally bounded by the first 3 days or so, after which a festive mood with street stalls around temples/shrines dies down, though nowadays people scarsely care about that and interpret the custom literally as such.Recommend

  • Ammar

    @From Tokyo:

    Very informative, didn’t know some of the things you explained.Recommend