“Church is who we are, not where we go….” ~Unknown
Jody and I headed out with every intention to visit our local Shinto Shrine on New Year’s Eve – one of the most important dates to celebrate in Japan and much of the Far East – to hear the ringing of the shrine’s bells. Futenma Gongen is just a short drive from where we live, and a Shrine that Jody can see from the Navy Hospital on Camp Foster where she works. However, with me coming down with a serious case of the flu/respiratory infection, we opted instead to visit the shrine as most Japanese do, in the few days following New Year’s Day. After all, it is bad form in Japan for anyone to go to “church” impure and soiled with sickness….
Hatsumode (初詣) in Japan is the first visit to a shrine or temple during the first few days of January where family and relatives pray together for a fortunate year ahead. Some of the most popular shrines (shrines are Shinto in Japan) and temples (which are Buddhist here) organize festivities with stalls that sell food, provide carnival-type games for this kids, and offer souvenirs and sweets like you might find at an old-tyme American county fair (See Shinto Shrines and Snake Oils for more). And yes, I did have to get a great big bag of cotton candy, just as popular here as anywhere else in the world.
We went off to see the shrine for the first time during the afternoon of January 2nd. Luckily we approached it from the direction where people queued up for entrance, and after passing a line extending at least a kilometer, we decided to come back on a more…reasonable day. No doubt god understands. Returning a couple of days later after Jody got off work we found the shrine still bustling with people, but with really no lines at all. While this probably doesn’t meet the strict intent of visiting by the 3rd, we weren’t alone; there were plenty of Japanese doing the exact same thing!
Part of such a visit usually involved purchasing omikuji, which are fortune-telling strips of paper, selected by reaching in and hand-drawing one out of a large box of bound fortunes. Jody and I each selected our fortunes, and after reading and sharing what lay in store for us (pretty much all good, like most fortunes), we left ours tied on wires strung near the shrine’s special pine tree.
There are also a whole slew of talisman and lucky charms that can be purchased for a small donation, all of which promise to offer increased safety for drivers, prosperity in business, healthy babies for pregnant women, and even good exam results for students! Of course most focus on love and health, rightfully so. Jody and I decided to purchase two ema, small wooden plaques on which prayers can be inscribed. One was to leave at the shrine with our prayer welcoming in the New Year, and the other to take home to add to our collection of ema we’ve collected from across Asian over the last 3.5 years.
Prayers are also offered at the shrine or temple’s main altar. After throwing some coins into a tamper-resistant donation collection box which can be found in front of every altar no matter how large or small, parishioners than grab a thick robe hanging down nearby and swirl it around to ring a connected bell a few times. Finally, the faithful bow twice, clap their hands twice in front of their chest, pray, and when finished, bow one more time in respect prior to leaving. Luckily for us Westerners, this procedure is pretty much the same at either Shinto Shrines or Buddhist Temples. This time around, since the Shrine remained a crowded buzz of activity, Jody and I passed on offering prayers at the altar.
Finally, we selected our New Year Kabura-ya (鏑矢, “turnip-headed arrow”). This represents a particular type of arrow used by the samurai class of feudal lords of long-ago Japan. Originally a way to announce approach and send messages, the bulbs on these arrow heads were designed to make a particular sound when fired. Over time legend grew that such jangles could chase away bad kami, basically evil spirits. Today, even carrying such an arrow, or placing it in your home can ward against evil spirits. Our arrow rests safely and purposefully near the entrance to our condo.
It’s true that church is not where we go. While Jody and I are neither Shinto nor even church-goers at home, there is value is maintaining such positive, almost secular traditions, that are hinged at welcoming a future full of health and prosperity. Church is, in fact, who we are and will be in the coming New Year of the Rooster 2017.