Japanese Culture: What Should I Pay Attention to in Hatsumode?

Happy New Year!

New Year’s Day is celebrated on January 1 in Japan, and usually between the end of December and the beginning of January, the entire country takes a 3-5 day New Year’s vacation (and sometimes there can be a long holiday of up to almost 10 days, such as the New Year’s holiday in 2020). During this long holiday, people who work or study in big cities usually go home to their families.

Just as every other country has its own unique New Year’s customs, Japan has its own unique New Year’s culture. In our previous article, “Japanese New Year: the Traditional Japanese Culture That You Never Know“, we introduced various traditional Japanese New Year customs in detail, and we recommend you to read it.

Among the many unique customs, Hatsumode is one of the more grand outings. Japanese people go to shrines or temples to thank the GODs for their help in the previous year and to pray for good luck and peace in the coming year, and some families even go out the night before to be the first to pay their respects when the clock strikes zero.

If you live in Japan and want to follow the customs, what are the things you need to pay attention to in Hatsumode? How can you behave without making mistakes?

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When should I go to Hatsumode?

There are various opinions about the timing of Hatsumode.

It is said that since the god of the year comes on New Year’s Eve (the Oomisoka), people should wait at home and then go to Hatsumode in the morning after eating New Year’s giblet or Osechi Ryouri on the next day (New Year’s Day).

It is also said that it is not necessary to go to Hatsumode in the morning of New Year’s Day, but also in the afternoon, or even within three days from the first day of New Year.

The current saying is to go to Hatsumode on the day of New Year’s Day, within three days, or, if you miss it, within seven days (in Japanese, it is called Matsunouchi, which refers to the period of decoration of the gate pine).

It is said that visiting a shrine or temple on New Year’s Eve, the moment the date changes, is called “nenshinri,” and many people choose it because it is said to accumulate more merit.

However, there is no strict time limit for Hatsumode, so you can go when you can.

Should I go to a shrine or a temple?

It seems that there is a saying that if you do not go to a shrine at Hatsumode, you cannot go. Some people also say that you must go to a famous shrine. But in fact, it is possible to go to a shrine or a temple.

People go to the first matsuri in order to give thanks for the safe passage of last year and to pray for happiness in the coming year. Unless there is a reason for belief (such as Buddhism), it is the same for both gods and Buddhas, as long as we are thankful and devout.

Also, it is not necessary to go to a famous shrine or temple. It may be better to greet the gods and Buddhas of nearby shrines or temples before going to famous places.

In the Kansai region of Japan, such as Kyoto and Osaka, people tend to visit shrines during their Hatsumode, while in the Kanto region, such as Tokyo, people visit both shrines and temples. However, it should be noted that there are some differences in the rituals for visiting shrines and temples, which we will introduce below.

Do I have to wear a kimono?

Many Japanese people wear formal kimonos when they go to Hatsumode, but is it necessary to wear a kimono? Would it be rude to wear a suit or a casual dress?

Of course not.

As mentioned earlier, the Hatsumode is a way to express gratitude for the past year and hope for happiness in the future. The emphasis is on the inner attitude, not on the outer costume. The Japanese wear formal kimono as an outward expression of their respect for the gods; however, it does not mean that there is no reverence for the gods if they do not wear kimono.

Generally speaking, it is only necessary to dress appropriately and not to wear clothes that are too casual, such as denim. Remember to take off your hat when entering shrines and temples.

Ways to Visit (Shrine)

Next, we will introduce how to visit the shrine.

Rituals when passing through the torii

The shrine will definitely have a torii near the entrance. Before entering the shrine, greet the gods by bowing gently at the torii.

Not in the center of the sento

After entering the shrine through the torii, the path leading to the main hall of the shrine is called the sento. It is generally believed that the center of the sento is where the gods pass through, so as worshippers, we should walk on both sides of the path to show our respect for the gods.

Washing hands and mouth at the chozuya

When you get close to the shrine complex, you will see the chozuya on both sides of the path (or on one side). It is usually a rectangular pond with many long-handled ladles on top, where you wash your hands and rinse your mouth at a shrine or a temple.

Before visiting the shrine, you should clean your hands and mouth here.

The correct order of operation is as follows:

Clean your left hand with the ladle handle in your right hand →
Clean your right hand with the ladle handle in your left hand →
Clean your mouth with water in your left hand with the ladle handle in your right hand (a little water should be left in the ladle at this time) →
Clean the ladle handle by standing up with the ladle handle in both hands

Be careful not to let your mouth touch the ladle. After cleaning the mouth, the water in the mouth should be spit into the drain or outside ground.

Bow before the saisen box and put in the money

A saisen box is where money offered to the gods or bodhisattvas is put.

The money should not be thrown too roughly but should be placed carefully and with respect in the saisen box.

If there is a bell hanging, then shaking the bell after putting in the money is said to drive away demons.

Two bows, two handclaps, and one bow

The action after putting in the money and ringing the bell is called “two bows, two hand claps, and one bow”. This means bowing twice to the statue of the deity, clapping twice, and then bowing once.

If you have a wish, you can make it when you clap your hands together afterward.

Turning around and bowing in front of the torii when leaving the shrine

When you leave the shrine, you should turn around at the torii and bow in the direction of the main shrine.

This is to greet the gods again and tell him, “I’m leaving, and please bring me happiness and luck in this year”.

How to visit (temples)

The worship method of temples is similar to that of shrines. However, there are some differences, so if you are accustomed to visiting shrines, you may have to pay attention if you are going to visit a temple this year.

Clasp hands and bow in front of the temple gate

When you visit a shrine, you bow before passing through the torii, and when you visit a temple, you bow before entering the temple gate, both to express your respect for the gods.

When crossing the gate, remember to avoid stepping on the threshold.

However, it is possible to walk in the middle of the path inside the temple. If there are scattered paving stones on both sides of the path, it is not right to walk on them.

Washing hands and mouth at the chozuya

This is the same as the ritual of the shrine.

If there is an incense burner, you need to clean your body with smoke. You can also light your own incense and offer it to the Buddha.

However, it is better to light the incense yourself than to borrow fire from someone else, or from an incense burner or candle, otherwise it is said that you are “receiving the sins of others”.

Bowing before the saisen box and putting in the money

This is also the same as at the shrine.

Making a wish with your palms together quietly

This is completely different from the shrine.

Shrines require two bows, two hand claps and then one bow, while temples require a quiet wish. Please be careful.

Final procession and departure

After making your wish, bow again.

When you leave the temple, don’t forget to turn around at the temple gate and bow in the direction of the temple.

Conclusion

The above are the points to note and some frequently asked questions for the Hatsumode.

If anyone has not yet gone to the Hatsumode this year, I hope this article can provide you with a reference.

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