Noilly Prattle: Getting Reacquainted 4 – 初詣 [Hatsumode] (New Year's Shrine Visit)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Getting Reacquainted 4 – 初詣 [Hatsumode] (New Year's Shrine Visit)

omikuji tied to tree branches
Hatsumode in Japanese means a New Year's visit to a Shinto shrine. People go to the shrines to pray for health, prosperity and luck in their various endeavors. Some people will make a New Year’s Eve vigil of it and head for their favorite Shinto shrine where a very festive ambiance prevails. The actual period of Hatsumode runs through January 15 and the scene gets progressively less hectic the later you visit the shrine. The first day or two are a traffic nightmare on the roads leading to certain major shrines. Bumper to bumper backups of several kilometers that move at a snail’s pace for hours are not unusual.

Shinto shrines sell all sorts of good luck charms. Paper ones are called おみくじ omikuji and are basically fortune telling cards. They can then be folded and tied to tree branches for good luck.

entrance exam success prayers
Another popular good luck charm with high school students is a wooden plaque asking for success in entrance examinations to top colleges and universities. Many shrines specialize in these plaques. Another popular good luck charm is a wooden arrow that you can obtain for a year and then burn in the shrine precinct before purchasing a new one for the oncoming year. One of the most popular items is an animal from the Chinese Zodiac. Last year was the Year of Snake, my own birth year animal and this year is the Year of the Horse. Road buddy and I decided to visit one of the shrines in our area, 吉備津神社 [Kibitsu Shrine] (which has unique double roof architecture and is a place that we hadn't visited in years) to buy a horse figurine for this Year of the Horse.

Happy New Year banners
purification water fount
As is the case with many, if not most, Shinto shrines you have to climb a lot of stone steps—a kind of stairway to heaven I suppose. Kibitsu Shrine is no exception. There are two sets of steps, the first leading to the main gate that is still below the level of the shrine precinct proper. Two huge red banners proclaim 謹賀新年 (pronounced KIN GA SHIN NEN) or Happy New Year. Before the gate there is a roofed fount with bamboo dippers for purifying the hands. The steps are gaily decorated with white paper lanterns giving the whole a rather festive atmosphere. After passing through the main gate another climb brings you to the main shrine precinct. 

main gate with decorative paper lanters
As I mentioned above, the Kibitsu Shrine is unique in Japan and is designated as a National Cultural Treasure. Its uniqueness lies in the construction of the roof with its double peaked roof and wide up curved eaves that give the impression of some mythical bird in flight. It is simply breathtakingly beautiful. Other buildings adorn the precinct, but none can match the splendor of the main building. We walked around admiring the grounds and buildings and bought our horse figurine.

with its double roof and wide eaves the building appears to soar like some mythical bird

section of long roofed passageway

 Another interesting feature of Kibitsu, which covers a very large land space on its mountain slope, is a very long covered passageway that I would venture to estimate approaches 300 meters in length. As you walk along there are many annex buildings that are small shrines dedicated to this or that deity.

water wheel
Road buddy was intent of finding a large cooking pot that she said was to be found somewhere in the shrine. I had no idea what she was talking about. That’s why we were walking along the passageway, when I noticed an interesting water wheel that I wanted to look at more closely near a large building off a side branch of the long passageway. Road buddy asked a man taking photos near the water wheel if he knew where this mysterious pot was to be found and he indicated the large building just behind us.

the story of Kibitsuhiko and the demon Ura
There is an interesting story told about the origins of the founding of Kibitsu Shrine back in the mists of myth that involves this pot, a prince and a demon. Road buddy translated the story for me. It goes something like this: The prince, named Kibitsuhiko, the seventh son of the then reigning Emperor, had to slay a demon named Ura who was terrorizing the countryside. After long struggles he managed to chop off the demon’s head, but the demon kept on moaning and groaning—a kind of restless undead zombie. The demon zombie told Kibitsuhiko to find his (the demon’s) wife named Azo, a sorceress in her own right, and ask her to cook some rice in this large pot. (Rice is never far away in old Japanese stories.) There was apparently some magic in that old pot of rice that would release the demon from his appalling condition. The quid pro quo was that he would stop being a badass and thenceforth advise Kibitsuhiko on becoming a great and just ruler of the country. Obviously, given the similarity in their names, Kibitsuhiko is said to be the founder of Kibitsu Shrine.
Shrine priest 
consulting the oracular pot
There really is a large pot that is kept boiling in the building over a pine wood fire. (If you’re a wood fire enthusiast you will appreciate the wonderful scent.) When we arrived, there was a ceremony going on inside and we couldn't enter at first. A shrine priest and priestess preside over the pot and the person who is seeking advice has to pay 3000. Apparently, the hissing steam of the pot is thought to be an oracle. Oddly, though, the priest and priestess do not interpret the oracle, the supplicant has to do the interpreting him- or herself. And it’s a bargain at only 3000--about $30!

Chinese Zodiac animals - snake (l.) and horse (r.)
Usually, you will find a Buddhist Temple around a Shinto Shrine and Kibitsu is no exception. The beautifully landscaped 普賢院 [Fugen’in] Temple sits below Kibitsu Shrine at the foot of the mountain. We strolled around Fugen’in for a while before heading back to the car and returning home with our horse and a cocktail before dinner. Not a bad way to spend a chilly winter day.

Fugen'in -- Buddhist Temple
rice paddies in winter -- just outside the Kibitsu Shrine precinct

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