I love the newly born year in Japan.
Hatsumode is the tradition of visiting a shrine or temple to pray during the first three days of the year, and one which Japanese folks overwhelmingly observe, irrespective of their daily spiritual inclinations. There’s a strong element of family and community to it as much as the religious aspect, but I think most do take that seriously, too. Pretty much everything apart from konbini and a few highly-visited tourist sites are closed on the first, and many stores and restaurants are closed from 12/31-1/3. My supermarket is closed from the 1st through the 3rd – can you imagine a supermarket being closed for three days for any holiday in America?
Technically I got my Hatsumode visits in on New Year’s Eve, after Midnight, but it’s great fun to fit some more in. These are lazy days, no school or work, and my neighborhood of Kagurazaka is universally in walkabout mode – families from the seniors to the toddlers out and about, visiting, stopping at various local temples and shopping for Fukubukuro – the “lucky bags” stores and bakeries sell during the first days of the year.
For my part I’ve taken leisurely trips to nearby places old and new, starting with Toyowaka Inari in Akasaka. The line between Shinto and Buddhism is always a blurry one, and never more so than with Inari, which has roots in both belief systems – Inari is both a Shinto Kami and a Buddhist Deity. This is actually an Inari Shrine and Myoginji Temple on one site, and it fuses Shinto and Buddhism into a Shugendou-type hybrid more thoroughly than anywhere I’ve been. It’s a busy little alcove with udon and Inari-zushi vendors wedged in between high-rises – a classic Tokyo juxtaposition.
Nearby is Hie Jinja, which I’ve visited before but I figured since it was Hatsumode I might as well see it in full “teeming masses” mode. This is one of the most important shrines in Kanto, and as you can see it was absolutely overrun with people – the line to pray extended all the way down to street level, and if you’ve been to Hie Jinja – set high on the tallest hill in the area – you know that’s a long, long line.
Today my main destination was an old favorite, Yanaka, but I stopped off in Ueno on the way (it’s about a 15-minute walk) to check out the Toshogu Shrine. It’s been covered with scaffolding non-stop since my first Tokyo visit five years ago, but they’ve finally removed much of it and the shrine itself is visible. It’s of course modeled on the legendary Toshogu shrine in Nikko, and certainly a worthwhile destination especially if you can’t get to Nikko to see the original.
As for Yanaka, it’s the most well-preserved district in Tokyo, having survived the WW II bombings and for the most part, the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Yanaka is full of atmospheric temples, including the well-known Tennouji, which was once 10 times its current size before the Boshin War saw it mostly destroyed. Yanaka Cemetery is truly massive and quite beautiful, containing – among other markers – the grave of the last Tokugawa Shogun. I don’t feel comfortable taking pictures in cemeteries (it seems disrespectful to me, though I see Japanese doing so all the time) but it’s one of the most interesting walks in Tokyo. Yanaka is also overrun with cats – the temples, the cemetery, the streets. I suppose they’re technically feral, but I can’t really think of them that way as most have no fear of humans – really, they’re just strays, and I assume they’re fed regularly by the monks and local shopkeepers.
Yanaka is a great place to get lost and just wander, with its narrow streets and old-school Japanese houses and shops. “Yanaka Ginza“, the local shopping street, is the most authentic pre-war shoutengai in Tokyo, complete with ¥30 コロッケ and ¥60 yakitori. If you want to get a taste of Shitamachi at its most unspoiled and atmospheric, Yanaka is definitely the ticket.