Hatsumōde, the best way to celebrate New Year in Japan

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Celebrating the new year in Japan is a fantastic experience. Unlike many western countries you traditionally don’t shoot fireworks during New Year (except maybe at Disneyland). 

Rather, it is customary to place a shimekazari (しめ飾り) or kadomatsu (門松) above or by the door entrance to welcome the shintō kami, eat osechiryōri (お節料理), and maybe most important of all, make the first temple visit of the year in a tradition called hatsumōde (初詣). 

In this article we will delve deeper into what hatsumōde is and how to celebrate it!

What is hatsumōde? Why is it important?

Hatsumōde (初詣, literally: first visit) is the tradition to make the first visit of the year at a shintō temple or shrine. The purpose of hatsumōde is to show appreciation for the past year and pray for fortune for the coming year. Although any first visit during the next year will be your hatsumōde, it is recommended to visit the temples or shrines on December 31 during midnight as most activities take place then.

Hatsumōde has a long history dating all the way back to the Heian period (794-1185) and is therefore one of Japan’s most cherished and important traditions. During the Edo period (1603-1868) it was common to visit a temple or shrine which was in the favorable direction called “ehō” (恵方), of the year according to the Chinese zodiac system. However, this custom changed and with modern transportation you can visit any temple or shrine you wish.

It is worth noting that especially the popular temples and shrines tend to get really crowded, so it is worth coming a little bit early so you don’t miss out on anything. It can also be really cold during the night so bringing warm clothes and a couple of kairo (カイロ, pocket heater) from the nearest convenience store could be a lifesaver!

Also, don’t worry too much about trains if you are out at midnight, all JR and most other train companies extend their services to account for people going on hatsumōde!

Image of person bowing at a temple

What to do during hatsumōde?

Visiting a temple or shrine during New Year is a totally unique experience. There are large crowds gathered and you will find many food stalls that serve delicacies, such as yakisoba (焼きそば), ringo-ame (りんご飴), amazake (甘酒) and much more. Different temples celebrate hatsumōde differently, for example some may provide a taiko (太鼓, Japanese drums) performance while others ring in the new year by striking a large bell 108 times. 

Here are some typical things to do during hatsumōde!

Ring in the new year in Japan with a tradition called Joya no Kane

One really memorable thing you can do during hatsumōde is attending a performance called joya no kane (除夜の鐘). When the clock hits midnight a temple priest will strike the temple bell called bonshō (梵鐘) a total of 108 times. The historical meaning of striking the bell is to repel demons from the north responsible for war and natural disasters. The tradition has been performed in Zen-Buddhism ever since the Kamakura period (1185-1333), although why the bell is struck exactly 108 times is debated.

Not all temples offer this show so make sure to do your research if you want to experience it!

Make a prayer for the new year

Another common practice is to pay homage at a shrine or temple (called sanpai 参拝) and make a prayer for the new year. How you perform this prayer depends on if you are visiting a Buddhist temple or a Shintō one. See our guide here on how to properly perform a sanpai in Shintō fashion!

Draw omikuji

Another common practice is drawing omikuji (おみくじ). An omikuji is a randomly drawn fortune telling paper slip which tells you the fortune for the coming year. Omikuji can come in all kinds of forms. There are some with a cute animal you get to keep as a decoration, there are others where you pull a stick and get a number which decides the outcome, and so on.

The omikuji drawn during hatsumōde is arguably the most important one, as it decides your fortune for the whole coming year. There are typically seven different categories of luck ranging from daikichi 大吉, great luck – to daikyō 大凶, very bad luck. If you get an undesirable result it is common to tie the slip on special racks with strings, or on a tree at the temple grounds.

Image of omamori, or Japanese lucky charm, purchased from temples and shrines for good luck, particularly around New Year in Japan

Protect your fortune with lucky charms

Another common practice during hatsumōde is to buy good-luck charms. There are a couple of different ones that are common to buy during New Year in Japan:

Omamori (お守り), a small bag made from cloth. They come in various colors and different omamori ward against different things such as illness, traffic accidents, bad grades and much else. It’s customary to return it once a year has passed

Ofuda (お札), a paper talisman which resembles the spirits and deities (kami) at the shrine. You are supposed to bring the ofuda to the household altar or shrine (which can be found in traditional Japanese homes) and doing so means that you welcome the enshrined kami to your household.

Hamaya (破魔矢) is an amulet shaped like an arrow and is said to pierce evil spirits. It’s common to place it at the house altar together with the ofuda. You also return this after a year has passed.

Image of a shrine building at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto

Some good temples/shrines to visit for hatsumōde

Now that we have a picture of what hatsumōde is, the obvious question remains: what shrines and temples are recommended to visit for hatsumōde? All temples and shrines offer slightly different activities and experiences so it is best to check their homepages for more information. 

Below are some recommendations based on personal experiences!

Meiji Jingū (明治神宮)
Meiji Jingu is a temple in close proximity to Shibuya and one of the most popular spots to visit during hatsumōde! It is crowded but the atmosphere is fantastic!

Narita-san Shin Shōji (成田山新勝寺)
Just an hour away from Tokyo, Narita-san Shin Shōji is a huge and impressive buddhist temple with a beautiful garden located on its temple grounds.

Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社)
If you are staying in the Kansai area near Kyoto or Osaka, it is recommended to visit Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. The temple is overlooked by a mountain and is famous for the hundreds of torii (鳥居) gates that lead up to and around the mountain.

Tsuru ga Oka Hachi Mang(鶴岡八幡宮)

If you are staying in Yokohama, it is highly recommended to pay a visit to Tsuru ga Oka Hachi Mangū. The temple is situated on the mountainside overlooking the city  of Kamakura and is walking distance from Kamakura JR Station, which is less than an hour away from Yokohama.

Hasedera (長谷寺)
Hasedera is also located in Kamakura and isn’t as large as the other temples. But, it is famous for performing the Joya no Kane ceremony ringing in New Year by striking the temple bell 108 times. The temple grounds are also illuminated and it’s a really atmospheric and pretty place to be at.

That’s it for this time! Did you enjoy reading about hatsumōde? Feel free to comment if you have other recommended places to share with us. 

If you are interested in more Japanese culture or life in Japan, follow our blog

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