Akemashite Omedetou! (あけましておめでとう！)
Anyone visiting Japan during the first few weeks of the New Year will be sure to hear this phrase – or its shortened version, Ake-Ome! – proclaimed on repeat. It’s customary to utter this greeting upon seeing someone for the first time of the year.
The Japanese are also wont to another tradition during this time, called Hatsumoude, which refers to the first shrine or temple visit of the New Year.
During the first four days of January, throngs of people go to their chosen shrine or temple to pray for good luck and to pay their respects. In a city as enormous and crowded as Tokyo, some of the most popular sites receive over a million visitors during these few days. Lines backed up over an hour, extending through the entirety of the property and even onto the streets outside, are not uncommon.
Those travelers finding themselves in Tokyo during this time can witness a unique slice of Japanese life by visiting one of the many shrines or temples in the city.
Sensoji Temple (浅草寺)
Site of the celebrated Kaminari-mon, or Thunder Gate, Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest temple, built in 645 in honor of Kannon, the goddess of mercy.
From Asakusa Metro Station, visitors will immediately see the aforementioned Kaminari-mon. Travelers keen on Tokyo’s history will enjoy Nakamise (仲見世), the shopping area located just past the main gate. Walking through the narrow and often crowded alleys is like stepping into the Edo period of Japan. The stalls in Nakamise as well as in the surrounding area sell traditional Japanese goods such as kimonos, paper and silk fans, sweets, and prints of famous artwork.
After New Year’s, the alleyways turn to turbulent seas of bobbing heads, poking out above the rest occasionally to peer at potential purchases. The majority, however, wait their turn to eventually proceed past Hozo-mon, the inner gate to the temple at the far side of Nakamise.
Meiji Shrine (明治神宮)
Strongly recommended any time of the year, Meiji Shrine is one of the most grandiose shrines in the whole city. It was constructed in 1921 for Emperor Meiji and his wife, though it was rebuilt in 1958 after being damaged in WWII.
Taking up a large portion of Yoyogi Park, Meiji Shrine is located just outside Harajuku Station. Visitors will spot the shrine easily by its entrance gate, called a torii (鳥居). The perceptive traveler will notice that only shrines, which belong to Shintoism, will possess this iconically-shaped gate.
During New Year’s Eve the shrine remains open throughout the night for visitors. During that night as well as the week after, the normally serene property and the gravel pathways leading toward it fill to the brim with crowds seeking to pay their respects. The wait to the inner shrine is – excepting the early morning hours – normally over an hour.
Observing Hatsumoude (初詣)
There are two main religions in Japan: Shintoism and Buddhism. As mentioned earlier, shrines are Shinto places of worship, and differ from temples, which are Buddhist. This distinction is important as some aspects of worshiping at each location differ.
It is customary to purify oneself at a fountain near the entrance before continuing to the main hall. Using a ladle provided at the water basin, first wash both your hands. Then, taking water into one of your purified hands, wash your mouth and spit the water out beside the fountain.
Visitors will then approach the main hall of the shrine to pray. Toss a coin into the wooden offering box at the top of the stairs and, pulling on the thick rope hanging from the ceiling, jostle the bell. The idea is to attract the gods’ attention to your prayers. Keeping that in mind, bow respectfully then clap loudly twice before making your wish. When you finish, bow once more.
The procedure for worship at temples is simpler as there is no elaborate ritual involved, just a donation before making your wish.
Aside from prayer, visitors to temples can also buy fortunes, called omikuji (御神籤). Japanese people commonly replace their old charms each year. There are charms for good health, wealth, family, and so on.
While the procedure can differ at each temple, at Sensoji the fortunes can be bought at a side building located before the main hall. Laying on a counter will be tubular containers. Pick up and shake one until out falls a stick with a number written on it. Then open the accordingly numbered box, which will contain your fortune, written on a rolled up sheet of paper.
Those who receive bad fortunes, marked with a 凶, frequently tie their fortunes to nearby tree branches in the hopes that the cursed fortune won’t follow them out of the temple. Good fortunes are marked with 吉.
Visitors also burn incense, called senko (線香), at a burning station. Because the smoke is believed to have healing power, many visitors fan the smoke towards themselves or to specific parts of their body which they wish to have healed.
Despite not being an overtly religious country, tradition still plays an essential part of Japanese culture. For most Japanese people, especially those living in Tokyo, temple and shrine visits are habitual parts of life, rather than spiritual.
Though this article only mentioned two of the more famous sites for Hatsumoude, worshipers visit any location they find convenient. Smaller neighborhood shrines certainly have their own charm, even as they lie semi-hidden within the streets of Tokyo. For those who would prefer to bypass the long wait at either Meiji or Sensoji, there are hundreds of other shrines and temples scattered throughout the city.
And remember, Akemashite Omedetou!