There are two main events or traditions marking the beginning of the new year in Japan. Auspiciously, the first visit of the year to the shrine called Hatsumode, and followed later in the month by the Tondo festival.
The first visit of the year to a shrine or temple is an important Japanese tradition, usually taking place in the first three days of the new year. I would venture that eighty percent of Japanese follow this tradition with the first visit. People make this visit specifically to offer gratitude for the year and to pray for safety and peace for the year ahead. While most commonly done at a shrine these devotions can be made either in a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple; Japanese people practice both belief systems.
At their chosen place of worship, people have specific practices:
After making their ritual devotions before the alter they will probably randomly draw folded strips of paper called “omikuji” from a wooden box or like receptacle – it’s a bit like a lottery. Traditionally you shake an oblong box so that a stick of bamboo with an inscribed number on it falls out and then you will choose your fortune strip according to that number from a stack in the draw. These are raked and can sometimes cover quite a range of possibilities for your fortune.
(大吉, dai-kichi): great blessing
(中吉, chuu-kichi): middle blessing
(小吉, shou-kichi): small blessing
(吉, kichi) basic blessing
(半吉, han-kichi): half-blessing
(末吉, sue-kichi): future blessing
(末小吉, sue-shou-kichi): future small blessing
(凶, kyou): curse
(小凶, shou-kyou): small curse
(半凶, han-kyou): half-curse
(末凶, sue-kyou): future curse
(大凶, dai-kyou): great curse
Other visitors may write their wishes on wooden plaques called “ema”. The ema are left hanging up at the shrine or temple, where the kami (spirits or gods) are believed to receive them. Possibly collect a seal for their temple/shrine seal book, or they may purchase “omamori“ – amulet or talisman for safety or blessing for the coming year. The most common amulets are beautifully designed small bags made of brocaded silk that often feature the deity or a sacred figure of the temple or shrine usually.
Others purchase a ‘hamaya’ arrow is a demon breaking arrow. It is believed that the sound of the twang of a bowstring is enough to chase off evil spirits
The main venues of choice tend to be shrines and the possibly most popular are Gokoku Shrine within the grounds of Hiroshima Castel or at Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima.
It is all festive in a subdued kind of way and a lovely way to start the year. Certainly, a bit more in-depth than simply making a new year resolution.
Are you up for a festive bonfire? The other significant new year event is held in mid-January, usually 14th or 15th, across Hiroshima Prefecture. It’s called the Tondo festival and is part of Koshogatsu—which literally means “small new year”— celebrated according to the old calendar at lunar New Year.
In public parks, school grounds and shrine courtyards, people gather around towering bonfires of bamboo, onto which they throw the ‘shimekazari’, the ornaments that are placed each December above the doors of homes and businesses or also see participants tossing on last year’s ‘hamaya’ arrows and other talismans, all of this definitively putting a lid on the old year.
Many Tondo are small local events and can be a great way to interact with your neighbors. It starts with the bonfire being lit, often by children bearing long torches and assisted by adults. As the bamboo kindles, the flames leap high into the air producing loud pops and bangs as the air pockets in the hollow stems expand and explode.
Usually, you’ll find something to nibble available nearby. You may have the chance to take a turn at the stone mortar pounding the steamed rice with a wooden mallet into the paste to form into cakes to make ‘mochi’ rice cakes and these are then either grilled, sometimes over the remains of the bonfire itself or simmered in a thick sweet bean soup called ‘zenzai,’ a classic taste of winter in Japan. There is also usually is hot tea and warm cups of sweet sake to ward off the chill.
Generally, Tondo is held on the 2nd or 3rd weekend of January, generally on the weekend closest to January 15.
Tondo Festivals around Hiroshima
Because of the community aspect, it might be worth asking around to find out if there’s a Tondo festival in your neighborhood. But several larger events located around Hiroshima city and its environs, drawing large crowds and taking on a more elaborate atmosphere than some local Tondo. The two main ones are:
Within the grounds of Hiroshima Castle, this large shrine’s Tondo festival is one of the most popular in the city. Unlike some other festivals, this one is always held on January 15th, no matter the day of the week. Expect large numbers of spectators and a more festive feeling. Fun features are the firemen dressed in traditional garb and the mochi that’s grilled on long poles held over the embers of the fire before being distributed to the crowd.
21-2 Motomachi, Naka Ward, Hiroshima, 730-0011 (map link)
On Miyajima at the UNESCO World Heritage Itsukushima Shrine, the Tondo takes place at low tide on the stretch of sea-damp sand between the shrine itself and its famous torii gate. Mikasa-no-hama Beach, Miyajima (in front of Itsukushima Shrine). This is a pleasantly unpretentious affair, and most often visitors happen upon it by luck. The combination of sea, fire, open-air and crimson shrine architecture makes quite a magical combination.
1-1 Miyajimacho, Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima 739-0588 (map link)
Ushita’s local shrine Waseda-jinja
Mush smaller and more intimate. Just be warned that if you struggle with steps you might want to choose elsewhere.
1 Chome-2-22 Ushitawaseda, Higashi Ward, Hiroshima, 732-0062 (map link)
Photo courtesy of Matt Mangham