Japan’s stance on religion has always fascinated me. On one hand, most of my friends say they do not know anything about religion. I have tried to explain the differences between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, but we all end up confused (myself included as I normally trying the explanation in Japanese). On the other hand, everyone I known has been to a shrine, not just as a tourist, but to throw coins into the box and make a few wishes. Most people I know have at least one omamori, or good luck charm, they bought at a temple or shrine.
I have tried many times to explain this version of religion to my friends and family, but there is normally only one explanation that somewhat gets across: Japanese people do not go to shrines as a part of a religious culture, but as a part of Japanese culture. Those are not Shinto shrines they are flocking to, but Japanese shrines. Of course, there are plenty of people who are genuinely religious, as we would define it in the West, but overall the practice seems to be one of Japanese-ness, rather than Shino or Buddhist. This is something I love about Japanese culture, as well as the persistence of traditional events and rituals in modern day life.
Last year I had the privilege of going to one of the biggest shrines in my city on January 3rd. Japanese culture dictates that you should go to three different shrines on the first three days of the New Year. When I asked my friends why this was, I was told that it’s, “To get better odds.” If you spread your prayers and wishes around to three different points, there is more of a chance of it coming true than if you go to the shrine every day. (Besides, one shrine might offer you a better fortune than the other.)
When I arrived at the shrine, the festive atmosphere in the area amazed me. I didn’t think it would be a somber experience, but I also didn’t expect there to be takoyaki and karaage stands set up out front as if we were at a summer festival. The entire street leading up to the shrine had been blocked off.
Once inside the shrine, however, things were more as I expected. Though the shrine was definitely busier than I had ever seen it, everything was moving around in an orderly, typical Japanese fashion. Apparently most people come after having a large family lunch, so by coming in the morning we were beating the crowds.
While people waited in line to get their fortunes or throw their coins into the offering box, a dragon (well, two men dressed as one) was wandering around biting people on the head. Apparently, a bite from the dragon endows you with great intellect; so many people were offering their children up as sacrifices. Understandably, most kids were not thrilled with the prospect of being eaten, and made their displeasure loudly known.
After we made our offering, we grabbed some paper fortunes, or omikuji. I don’t remember what mine said, but I was informed that it was a good one. Still, we all tied our fortunes to the nearby tree and stopped by the omamori window. We all handed over our omamoris from the last year (I had been unaware that they came with an expiration date, but apparently they are only good for a year) and picked up a few new ones.
The omamori I picked up for health ended up being defective. This year I have picked up a few from different temples, just to improve the odds. After all, one can always use a little extra luck.
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