Dec 28, 2018
I remember the first time I was invited by a co-worker to go for a New Year’s shrine visit with her family here in Japan. It was something that I had always heard about but never tried on my own. Why didn’t I? Well, it is cold during this time of the year, it is a holiday so I want to just stay home and stay warm, I do not even want to change out of my pajamas, to be very honest, but most importantly, I am not religious, and going to the shrine to pray and buy charms is the most religious thing I see here in Japan, so I never went until this invitation.
At the same time, I do recognize that this is more of a tradition than a religious practice. The people I have met here are not religious at all, despite their annual effort to leave the warm house for shrine visits in the early mornings every year. I always find that very interesting and conflicting. If they are visiting the shrine to pray, who are they praying to? If they are praying to “God”, they must believe in God or Gods, yet they don’t. It is like sending an e-mail out knowing that the recipient’s address does not exist, yet they keep sending the e-mail out every new year. Also, they do not receive those charms for free. They are paying money, good money for them! The money is of course a way to support the shrine and to keep it running… but if they do not believe in the religion, why do they even care? All these queries I have, of course, came to me immediately as a foreigner who did not grow up with the tradition, but many of my local friends simply tell me that they do it because they have always done it every year, and that I would understand and perhaps even appreciate it more if I would tag along and see it for myself.
So finally, I had my first New Years shrine visit. The shrine was packed with people! It was on the third, so it definitely was not the “worst” day there, but it was also the biggest shrine of the area which explains its popularity. I went with my co-worker, her husband and her three kids. Along the way, they explained to me what people were doing, the different kinds of charms, the tradition of bringing back the charm from the previous year to return it to the shrine (which is also very strange to me because it makes me feel like they are renting the charms rather than buying them).
Along the way, I realized that she was explaining to me a tradition. There really was nothing religious about her way of thinking. She was telling me about her New Years prayers for her sons’ health and studies. The kids were telling me about how they want this year to be even better than the year before. Her husband went to get some amazake (hot and sweet rice wine) for us to drink and to warm our bodies up (which I could feel the alcoholic effect and was surprised that the kids were allowed to be drinking amazake too). It was just a simple family and cultural event that I was invited to take part in.
I actually did not make a prayer, nor did I make any donations or purchase any charms. I still believe that I did not want to do any of those acts unless I believed in that religion. A part of me thought that the talk about new year wishes can be done at home too and not necessarily at the shrine. However, I also did really enjoy my time there with her family, and since I was not forced to do any particular religious traditions, I see no harm in doing that, especially if it helps me enjoy the atmosphere of the Japanese New Years.