To understand hatsumode, you need to understand the importance of shrines and temples in Japan. Any visitor to Japan will notice the plethora of shrines and temples — Shinto and Buddhist, respectively — thronging the country. Some take up entire blocks. Others are so small as to be unseen.
But a visitor who decides to check out one of the bigger shrines or temples on the New Year is in for a treat. During the first three days of the New Year, called sanganichi (三が日), people from all walks of life throng to great and small places of worship to pray and make wishes for the new year.
This is hatsumode (初詣; はつもうで), the first shrine visit of the new year, and one of the busiest and most prosperous times for shrines and temples. Hatsumode falls under the huge holiday period that is oshougatsu (お正月), a time of celebration and welcoming dating back to Japan’s feudal era. Modernity, and even the economy, has left an indelible mark on the kinds of wishes people make for the coming year.
The Origins and History of Hatsumode
Sources vary on the exact origins of hatsumode, but it is generally accepted that it grew out of a Heian-era tradition called toshigomori (年籠り). The head of a household, known as the ie, would seclude himself in the local shrine of his family or hometown’s guardian kami, or ujigami (氏神). He would pray to the ujigami from the last night of the previous year, and welcome the dawn of the new year with the kami. Even now, many people participate in hatsuhinode (初日の出), or the first sunrise of the new year.
The 1868 Meiji Restoration ushered in not only new ways of thinking but new ways of transportation. Most notable was the railroad system. Equipped with British financing and designs, from 1871 onward Japan laid down railroad systems all over the country.
With the advent of the railroad, people from far-flung villages had the opportunity to make pilgrimages to some of the more revered or bigger temples. They no longer had to rely on their small patron shrines. They could make their wishes at bigger shrines frequented by the urban masses.
To this day, Japan’s railway companies still prove to be an important aspect of hatsumode, notably for advertising purposes. For example, the Hankyu Corporation selects an up-and-coming troupe member from the famed Takarazuka all-female theater group to be a “poster model” for a hatsumode ad campaign, as well as a special guest at the corporation’s private shrine.
Hatsumode and Nationalism
The increase in hatsumode visits during the Meiji era also had roots in fledgling nationalistic interests:
In order to create a modern unified nation, the new government conducted major operations in various fields. This include administration, the justice system, military, and taxation. But the Meiji government also thought it was necessary to use Shinto to bring the country into religious unity. The government organized regional shrines and incorporated Shinto teachings into political and educational fields. In this way, they spread the ideals of nationalist Shinto to the people. As part of that plan, visits of worship to shrines were encouraged.
Japan was moving forward, after all.Ttime threatened to leave people stuck in old ways of thinking and living. Promoting an indigenous belief system was one way to bolster nationalism. In the view of the Meiji leaders, it create unity among people and kept them grounded in Japan’s ancient ways.
The most popular shrine to visit is the Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo. As of 2017, over 3 million visitors flocked to the shrine for hatsumode. Other notable shrines include Fushimi-Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) and Tsurugaoka Hachimanguu Shrine (鶴岡八幡宮).
Hatsumode isn’t just observed in Japan alone. It’s is celebrated anywhere with a Shinto shrine and a large following. Notable shrines in the United States include the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Granite Falls, Washington, and Daijingū Temple in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Making Wishes at Hatsumode
Despite hatsumode’s origins in Shinto, many people often choose to visit either a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple. As covered in our earlier article on Shinto’s status as a non-religious religion, most Japanese don’t think of themselves as religious. Rather, these rituals and festivities are considered cultural and enmeshed in the daily social lives of the Japanese.
There isn’t a complicated list of rules for pilgrims on hatsumode. However, there are some key aspects that make this shrine visit especially unique and noteworthy.
Shinto is all about purification and renewal, so before entering the shrine it’s common to cleanse or purify your hands and mouth with water at the temizu-ya (手水舎). In this way, you’ll be prepared to receive the kami’s blessing free from the influences of the outside world.
Prayer and Omamori
Then it’s time to pray. Just like in a church or synagogue, there’s a “correct” way to pray. Upon approaching the shrine proper, you make a monetary donation, or saisen (賽銭), by throwing a coin, usually a 5-yen one, into the shrine’s collection box, the saisenbako (賽銭箱). After bowing twice, you either pull a rope to ring the bell and catch the kami‘s attention, or clap your hands twice. Then you make your wish for the upcoming year. Wishes range from passing entrance exams, getting a job, falling in love, or even being safe from natural disasters.
When you finish making your wish, you give a final bow to the kami before departing. Now it’s time to arm yourself for the new year with omamori (お守り). A large part of a shrine’s income is through the selling of omamori, or protective charms and amulets. Omamori vary by size and type — there’s omamori for finding a job, overall happiness, and getting pregnant. Whatever aid you need from the kami, there’s bound to be an omamori for you.
Many pilgrims buy new omamori and burn their old ones in a specific pyre on the shrine grounds. This is called otakiage (お焚き上げ). Some shrines hold a special otakiage ceremony of the old omamori on a later date. Where you place your new omamori is said to increase or decrease its effectiveness, and the likelihood of your wishes coming true.
Ema (Horse Votive)
People can also choose to purchase an ema. An ema (絵馬), literally “picture horse,” is a type of prayer board with a picture of a horse or other symbol on one side, and a blank side on the other for people to write their hopes and wishes.
If you’re feeling especially plucky or daring, you can also purchase an omikuji (御神籤), or a fortune slip predicting one’s happiness for the new year. Your fortune will either be a blessing, or daikichi (大吉), or a curse (大凶; daikyou). If it’s the latter, you tie the omikuji to a tree or rope on the shrine grounds in hopes the ill fortune won’t follow you when you leave.
Hatsumode pilgrimages have only increased over the years. While the huge crowds of people can be anxiety-inducing, the general mood is one of celebration and excitement. It’s a time to move on from the past year. It’s also the occasion one welcomes the endless possibilities the new year has in store.
If you’re fortunate to be in Japan during the New Year, then be sure to visit your closest shrine or temple and take part in this ancient tradition. You won’t regret it.
What to Read Next
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 初詣に行きたい寺社ランキング！おすすめの寺社はどこ？参拝方法もご案内. Rakuten Travel
 「初詣」の歴史は意外に浅い！？ 広まった理由とは. Asahi Dot
 2017 rings in across Japan as shrine, temple throngs pray for good year. Japan Times
 お守りの効果ある持ち方解説｜つける場所はどこが正しいの？Plush Fortune
Hong, Lisa. “The First Prayer of the New Year.” Gaijinpot, Dec 30 2016. Accessed Dec 23 2018. https://blog.gaijinpot.com/hatsumōde-meiji-jingu/.
“A celebration of Japanese traditions.” The Japan Times, Jan 1 2017. Accessed Dec 28 2018. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/01/01/national/celebration-japanese-traditions/#.XChLoM1CfIV