The second day of the year was an unusually warm day. The sun was shining bright beckoning us to put on our jackets and get outside, away from our couch, TV, and Netflix. After sleeping in into late afternoon and lounging around for the rest of the New Year’s Day, the next day we felt it was time to finally get ourselves dressed and head over to Meiji Jingu to pay our respects for the year before and pray for health and prosperity for the year to come. It was time to do our hatsumode.
Hatsumode (初詣で) is a cultural event of one’s first visit of a shrine or temple to greet the gods in the New Year, commonly within the first three days of the year (January 1st to 3rd). Meiji Jingu (明治神宮, Meiji Shrine) is relatively new, established in 1920—less than a century ago, and located in Harajuku district of Tokyo. It is, however, the most famous shrine to visit during hatsumode. Over the length of the first three days of the year Meiji Jingu welcomes over three million visitors. In its entire course of the year ten million visit the shrine, making the hatsumode period its busiest time of the year. This shrine’s spirit power is believed to be in romance and marriage as well as keeping the evil spirits away. So it is not hard to see why Meiji Jingu has such strong standing in popularity amongst other places of worship within Tokyo Metropolis.
It is important for us and PICA to start the new year on a positive note, and within only a 30 minute train ride and its longstanding favourable reputation Meiji Jingu was a definite hatsumode choice for us.
We finally arrived at Harajuku station as the sun was beginning to descend, approaching twilight. The station was unusually busy as we exited the train on the opposite side of the usual platform across the tracks. Aware of the hatsumode crowd the station opened a special entrance/exit point located closer to the shrine grounds. Normally this entrance is closed and the platform is empty, leaving me always to assume that it is an old and long forgotten part of the 110 year old station. That day it became as clear as the summer’s sky that it has a purpose essential to the New Year’s shrine pilgrimage.
As we exited the station the crowd urged us in the direction of the shrine. In mere minutes we found ourselves underneath the main torii (鳥居, Shinto shrine archway or gate) leading to the Meiji Jingu shrine complex. Here in the green wooded area the crowd spread out and we began to stroll along towards the shrine. The shrine itself is nestled deep in the park with a long forest pathway leading the visitors in. This is perhaps my most favourite spot in Tokyo. Away from all the hustle and bustle of Tokyo’s urban roar, the towering trees completely block out the outside noise. All around you are the trees, the sky, and the rocky road. It is very serene and calming. Perfect.
As we approached and passed by the second torii, the crowd began to thicken, until we all finally came to a complete stop. We were only halfway through, and what opened up ahead of us was a sea of people.
We patiently waited along with the crowd for what seemed to be an hour. Slowly progressing for some distance and then once again coming to a halt. We soon realized that the grounds were well guarded by police officers, some with signs guiding the crowd when to stop and to proceed. All in all it was a very long and orderly procession. People around us were quietly talking, taking picture of their surrounds from above. Some were even reading a book—smart and clearly prepared.
It was beginning to get dark when we finally approached the main building. The final part seemed to take forever as we slowly waited to take our turn to come close to the offering ground. Some seemed to have lost the patience and began to toss the coins over the crowd’s heads. As we had no clue where or how far the offering ground was, we patiently waited to come as close to it as possible. When we did, we threw in our coins, thanked the gods for their blessings and prayed for new ones in the new year. (See at the end: How to Pray at Shinto Shrine)
Feeling great and in high spirits, we left the praying crowd as we walked by the omamori (お守り, protection charm or amulet) vending stalls on our way out. Many, to protect themselves in the new year, were actively stocking up on small pouches of brocaded silk housing a small piece of paper with a prayer written on it. Each omamori charm has a unique purpose: to ward off evil or to aid in romance, safety, study, etc. It is thought to be a great way to take a piece of shrine’s spirit and power along on the road. For more on the variety of omamori check out Tofugu’s “Omamori: Protecting Yourself in Little Ways” post.
At the end of the road leading outside the Meiji Jingu grounds we found ourselves overwhelmed by the best part of the Japanese festival tradition, the yatai (屋台, food cart or stall). Here yatai were filled with all kinds of scrumptious Japanese festival foods. There were crab, yaki-soba, jagabata (potato in butter), grilled squid, karaage (fried chicken), chocolate bananas, and many more. The delicious smell was everywhere, absorbing itself into the air surrounding us. And the heated smoke coming from the stalls kept us toasty on this cold winter night.
After our long and stomach-stuffing walk through the yatai, we took a turn towards the Takeshita street and treated ourselves to a sweet heavenly Japanese crêpe. A perfect way to end the evening on a high note.
How to Pray at Shinto Shrine
Visiting a Shinto shrine and would like to pray the right way? Here are a couple of steps to remember:
First, throw in a ¥5 coin into the offering box. ¥5 (五円), pronounced as go-en, is a homophone to 御縁 (go-en), “good relations”. Using a ¥5 coin as an offering is thus considered to be auspicious when making a wish.
Then bow twice, clap twice and continue to make a prayer.
When finished, bow once.