Hatsumode is the first shrine visit of the New Year.
The first character 初 means “first,” and the second character 詣 means “attend” or “visit a shrine.”
Most people here in Japan are off work from December 29 untill January 3rd, but people often visit shrines right after midnight when the New Year’s Eve turns the New Year’s Day.
Many visit on the first, second, or third day of the year. Visitors offer some change and ring the bell at the main shrine building, then pray and wish for a peaceful and prosperous new year.
Visiting shrine at midnight is also a common excuse used by young people who live with their parents to go out by themselves so late in the evening. Most atmospheric is a visit to a temple around midnight on New Year’s eve, when the temple’s bell is rung repeatedly.
In contrast to New Year’s Eve, the atmosphere of hatsumode is light and festive. For the visitor, Hatsumode is a chance to see many Japanese, especially women and children, fully decked out in colorful kimono.
Other people choose to visit a temple like the world famous Kinryū-zan Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺) temple in Asakusa.
Around 12 million people visit the top five shrines around the country visit to pray for good luck throughout the coming year.
At popular shrines and temples you can experience a festive atmosphere with food stands and many people lining up for a prayer at the main hall, purchasing lucky charms for a fortunate new year and disposing their lucky charms of the past year.
It would be customary to spend the early morning of New Year’s Day in domestic worship, followed by sake—often containing edible gold flakes—and special celebration food. During the hatsumōde, it is common for men to wear a full kimono—one of the rare chances to see them doing so across a year.
There are often long lines at major shrines throughout Japan. Until the 19th century, it was normal to visit the local Shinto Shrine which protected the family, called Ujigami (氏神), but nowadays, most people choose to visit famous and powerful Shrines/Temples instead.
Also known as a Dharma doll, is a hollow, round, Japanese traditional doll modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism.
These dolls, though typically red and depicting a bearded man (Dharma), vary greatly in color and design depending on region and artist. Though considered an Omocha (玩具) , meaning toy, Daruma has a design that is rich in symbolism and is regarded more as a talisman of good luck to the Japanese.
Daruma dolls are seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck, making them a popular gift of encouragement.
A common custom during Hatsumode is to buy a written Omikuji (means oracle). If your Omikuji predicts bad luck you can tie it onto a tree on the shrine grounds, in the hope that its prediction will not come true.
The Omikuji goes into detail, and tells you how you will do in various areas in your life, such and business and love, for that year. Often a good-luck charm comes with the Omikuji when you buy it, that is believed to summon good luck and money your way.
Many shrines specialise and people come to pray for everything from help in passing exams to having a baby. To keep the good luck with them throughout the year, Omamori, or good luck charms, can be bought from the shrines. You’ll often see school children with them hanging from their bags.
What is also little known is that after the exams, or whatever it was bought for, the Omamori is supposed to be brought back to the same shrine and thanks given:
There are various kinds of them, which gives you good luck in studying, health, love, etc.
New Year (Shogatsu or Oshogatsu) is the most important holiday in Japan. Most businesses shut down from January 1 to January 3, and families typically gather to spend the days together. Years are traditionally viewed as completely separate, with each new year providing a fresh start.
Consequently, all duties are supposed to be completed by the end of the year, while Bonenkai parties (“year forgetting parties”) are held with the purpose of leaving the old year’s worries and troubles behind.
Homes and entrance gates are decorated with ornaments made of pine, bamboo and plum trees, and clothes and houses are cleaned.
January 1 is a very auspicious day, best started by viewing the new year’s first sunrise (Hatsu-hinode), and traditionally believed to be representative for the whole year that has just commenced.
Therefore, the day is supposed be full of joy and free of stress and anger, while everything should be clean and no work should be done.
It is a tradition to visit a shrine or temple during Shogatsu.
A special selection of dishes eaten during the New Year celebration is called Osechi-Ryōri, typically shortened to Osechi. This consists of boiled seaweed konbu, fish cakes, mashed sweet potato with chestnut, simmered burdock root and sweetened black soybeans.
Many of these dishes are sweet, sour, or dried, so they can keep without refrigeration—the culinary traditions date to a time before households had refrigerators, when most stores closed for the holidays.
There are many variations of Osechi, and some foods eaten in one region may not be eaten in other places (or are considered unlucky) on New Year’s Day.
Another popular dish is Ozōni, a soup with Mochi rice cake and other ingredients that differ based on various regions of Japan. Today, Sashimi and Sushi are often eaten, as well as non-Japanese foods.
To let the overworked stomach rest, seven-herb rice soup is prepared on the seventh day of January, a day known as jinjitsu (人日).
On New Year’s eve, Toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles), symbolizing longevity, are served.
There are also a few games traditionally played on New Year, however, their popularity has decreased in recent times. Hanetsuki (Japanese badminton), takoage (kite flying), and karuta (a card game) are some of them.
Fukuwarai (“lucky laugh”):
This game is somewhat like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, although a human face is used. Blindfolded, children must take the shapes for eyes, ears, mouth, nose (and sometimes eyebrows, mustache, etc.) and try to properly place them on an outline of a face. Once finished, all of the participants remove their blindfolds and laugh at all of the faces, sometimes (in good humor) saying who in the family each face resembles.
Hanetsuki (“shuttle passing”):
This game is often called Japanese badminton. It’s similar to badminton except that there is no net and the two players simply try to pass the shuttle (called Hane) back and forth.
Sugoroku (“two sixes”):
A board game that’s existed for over a thousand years, Sugoroku is another traditional New Year’s game to play. A bit similar to backgammon, you roll a die and advance across the board.
Playing a traditional Japanese card game is another common activity around New Year’s. Cards are arranged face up on a surface. Each card has something on it–a vocabulary word, lines of a poem, pictures–and the goal of the game is to find the right card and grab it before the other people playing do.
Someone directing the game will call out whatever he or she wants you to choose (reading the first few lines of a poem and asking you to complete the poem, saying a vocabulary word in one language and asking you to find it in another, etc.) and it’s up to the other players to find the right card. This is a great game for learning vocabulary words.
A very popular custom is the sending of New Year’s cards, which are specially marked to be delivered on January 1. It is not uncommon for one person to send out several dozens of cards to friends, relatives and co-workers.
Visiting Japan during New Year (Shogatsu) can be rewarding, as you have the opportunity to experience Japan’s most important holiday, but it can also be frustrating, as many tourist attractions, shops and restaurants are closed, and getting around can be inconvenient.
If you are in Japan during New Year, you can join the crowds doing hatsumode. Hatsumode festivities are held at practically every shrine and temple across Japan.