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“Hatsumode”: An Ancient New Year’s Tradition

uji bashi ise shrine

Uji-bashi, Ise Shrine / Jan. 1st, 2018

In the dawn light, I can’t parse
My dreams from reality.
-Shinkei (1406-1475)

In the Land of the Rising Sun, to witness the sun rise in a sacred place is to be blessed with good fortune. On the New Year, this pious act of observance is called “hatsumode.” Trains run throughout the night of December 31st, allowing travelers to arrive almost anywhere in time to catch the dawn’s golden rays. Fortune is increased when viewing the sun through a sacred gate, and more so if that gate is housed at a shrine whose deity represents the zodiac animal of the New Year. On this day, and for the next two days following, those who fervently hope for good fortune will brave the biting cold to present their heartfelt wishes to the gods.

ise shrine hatsu mode

A Pilgrimage to Ise

Shrines and temples are found in great abundance in Japan, and while there are many that would make for a fine hatsumode, perhaps few are as revered as the religious home of the Sun Goddess, Ameterasu Omikami. It is said that 2,000 years ago the Emperor Suinin instructed his daughter to procure a new location to hold ceremonies for the goddess. Searching over 20 years for a suitable place, she reached the southern rim of a large bay overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was in the coastal city of Ise, near the mountains and sea, that the princess heard the voice of Amaterasu call down, “it is here I wish to dwell.”

ise shrine hatsu mode

This year I decided to do some searching as well, and revisited that familiar shrine I adored as a university student living in the neighboring prefecture, Mie. I still recall the quietude that encompasses the cypress forest there. How I marvelled at the trees’ astonishing girth, the braided ropes that adorn them like bracelets, placed as embellishments by the monks to honor those evergreen giants. Like many pilgrims at Ise, I came to pray and welcome the first rays of sunlight. Ringing the bell to alert the goddess of my presence and to show seriousness of spirit, I tossed my coins in the offering box.

ise shrine station

As Within, So Without

Ise Shrine is divided into two main sections: Naiku, meaning Inner Shrine, and Geku, Outer Shrine. Known as ‘the spiritual home of the Japanese people,’ over 7 million pilgrims make the trek each year. A bus departs from the station to both the inner and outer gates. For Naiku, visitors enter through the Uji-bashi gates, cross a 100 meter bridge, and thereby transition from the human realm to the sacred. Every 20 years these gates are rebuilt to look just as they have looked for ages. Timber is taken from the forest and crafted in the ancient method of jointing wood without nails. The architecture at Ise reflects the simplicity found in nature.

ise power stone

‘Power stones’ in the inner shrine are believed to radiate warmth.

Fortune Favors the Specific

Visitors often purchase protective charms containing a prayer card. The charms are sorted into various categories depending on the need being fulfilled. Health, wealth, and happiness are the most common charms, while others address the desire to attain good test scores, avoid car accidents, and have a complications-free pregnancy and birth. You can purchase as many as you like, and for your friends and family too. This is all part of the process of hatsumode, which literally means ‘first visit to the shrine.’ Lastly, it is said that once hatsumode is complete, the pilgrim must return straight home to retain the blessings of the trip.
Would you visit a shrine to make a New Year’s wish? Of course it’s not all prayers and donations. You can be sure there is a fair amount of shopping available as well. The Outer Shrine is a long lane of shops, restaurants, and hotels dedicated to Toyouke Omikami: the God of agriculture, rice harvest, and industry. If you can, try the traditional New Year’s sweet, oshiruko. It’s a red bean soup that is particularly delicious on a cold winter day.

ise shrine

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