Japan has only been doing New Year’s celebrations since 1873 when the country adopted the Gregorian calendar of the West. Traditionally the Japanese New Year was based on the Chinese lunar calendar, where the dates each year were not fixed. But now the New Year is locked into January 1, and most of the country shuts down for several days on either side of the event.
There is traditional food such as rice cakes and buckwheat noodles. At midnight Buddhist temples ring bells 108 times (107 before the midnight hour and once in the new year) to conquer the 108 worldly desires. Postcards are dispatched to friends and relatives. But the biggest activity for many is the trip to the first Shinto shrine of the New Year – the hatsumōde.
The pilgrimage is undertaken to pray for good luck in the year to come, and worshipers also take advantage of the occasion to buy good luck amulets to shift the fortunes in their favor. It is also a time to burn old ones that may not have delivered on their promise. Long lines form outside Japan’s Shinto shrines, and some attract millions of visitors during the first three days of the New Year. Here are some of the shrines to experience around Kobe.
The Ikuta Shrine tucked among the bustle of Sannomiya is one of the city’s most popular dispensaries of amulets. It is small and said to be one of the oldest shrines in all of Japan, having been erected in the 3rd century AD for the Empress Jingu. Traditionally Ikuta Shrine has been considered a guardian of personal health, taking its name from the Chinese character meaning “life.” Since good health is at the top of many wish lists for the coming year, Ikuta Shrine is a top destination for hatsumōde.
There is a small duck pond at Ikuta Shrine, and since some species of ducks mate for life, this is a popular hatsumōde for couples as well.
Ikuta Shrine: 1-2-1 Shimoyamate-dōri, Chūō-ku, Kobe
This is the principal shrine honoring the Sumiyoshi Sanjin, the gods of the sea and sailing, in Japan. Historians treasure the Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine for its architectural innovations, but its more common notoriety is for the crowds that pour into the Sumiyoshi Ward of Osaka for hatsumōde. An estimated two million worshippers flow up the steps to Sumiyoshi Taisha in the first couple of days of every new year. It is anything but a solemn occasion, however, as the shrine is ringed with vendors and food stands and entertainment for those waiting on line.
Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine: 2-9-89 Sumiyoshi, Sumiyoshi-ku, Osaka City
Hirota Shrine in Nishinomiya City is another of the places of worship to honor Empress Jingu, one of three total. It has also been designated a “grand shrine,” the only one in Hyogo Prefecture. Hirota Shrine is known for its springtime arrivals – the blooms on its unique azalea bushes and the players of the Hanshin Tigers who come to pray for victory and health in the upcoming baseball season.
Before that, the devoted come on New Years to pick up their random fortunes written on slips of paper, the omikuji that foretell either positive blessings or dastardly curses awaiting the recipient.
Hirota Shrine: 7-7 Taisha-chō, Nishinomiya