I swear there are times this country is so sugoi I think my head is going to pop like a champagne cork…
It’s Hatsumode time in Japan, and that means a visit to a temple or shrine on the first three days of the year. For many that comes on New Years Eve, as they visit at midnight to welcome in the new year in traditional fashion, a ritual any anime fan knows very well. Indeed, starting the day with Comiket and ending with Hatsumode is a real Yin/Yang of Japanese culture (to borrow a Chinese phrase).
I never much cared for the American NYE model – get hammered and hope you don’t get killed by a drunk driver on the way home – so I was pre-disposed to like the Japanese style better. This is the one night of the year when the trains run all night in Tokyo, and millions of people participate – families with small children, young singles, salarymen and obaa-sans. Three million people visit Meiji Shrine in Tokyo alone during Hatsumode, and while I wanted a crowd for a real Hatsumode experience, that was more than I felt was ideal. So I decided to do a bit of a “shrine crawl”, starting with Daijingu Shrine. But that’s well-known as the shrine for girls seeking success in romance and isn’t exactly a scene I fit in with, so I settled on Kanda Myojin Shrine as my spot to ring in the year.
New Years in Japan was one of those events I built up a lot in my mind, but amazingly, it lived up to the hype. Kanda Myojin is a one of the six or seven largest in Tokyo and draws a nice mix of people, and when I arrived at about 10:45 there was already a good crowd lined up for the chance to pray. Food stalls were set up along the pilgrim’s path and the mood was low-key but cheerful. When midnight approached there was no mass countdown, but a murmur went through the crowd as cell phones told the tale, and applause rolled across the Shrine with New Years greetings. Meanwhile the adjacent temple was ringing their bell 108 times to represent the 108 delusions of mankind, a Buddhist tradition.
Once inside, it was a truly amazing scene. Shinto music being performed on one platform, massive crowds lined-up at the main shrine, men – very cold men – in fundoshi pounding mochi, shrine attendants giving out mochi and natto (yuck) along with amazake to worshippers. Meanwhile the first bonfires of the year are lit, another tradition, as people burn their good-luck charms from the prior year and buy new ones. It was festive, but retained an air of the old ways about it – with the light of the bonfires, the smoke, the music – clearly a moment in time that’s very precious to the Japanese. Kanda Myojin’s symbol is the uma (horse) and the Shrine has a tiny miniature horse as a sort of mascot – I confess the poor animal seemed as if he was getting more attention that he was really comfortable with.
On the way back from Iidabashi to my apartment at about 2 AM, I stopped at Akagi Shrine, the largest in Kagurazaka. Things were still going strong there, and the feeling was more mystical there – it’s a smaller-scale operation and there were no food stalls or musicians, just lonely fires burning and amazake being given to the worshipers. It was really cold by this point, but incredibly clear and still – and it was also the first time I’ve seen the stars since I’ve been to Tokyo. So much of the city’s traffic and industry shuts down over the New Years holiday that the air is far clearer than normal, and gazing at that night sky by firelight it was possible to imagine what this ritual must have felt like a thousand years ago.