Bowing in the New Year

As the year winds down people in Japan prepare for one of the biggest holidays of the nation : the New Year’s celebrations. In contrast with a lot of countries which place the highlight of their winter calendar on xmas festivities, Japan focuses on the passing of the old year and the welcoming on the new. Among the many different customs and traditions that have been built up around these celebrations, one of the most basic is the concept of hatsu mode or ‘first visit’, referring to the first visit to the local or ancestral shrine or temple of the new year.

Some Japanese stay up all night to see the first sunrise, upon which they make their way to the shrine; others wait until a little later in the week, as hatsu mode is traditionally done within the first 3 days of the new year. Either way, the ritual draws its meaning from the act of thanking the gods for the previous year’s blessings, and praying for another happy year.

Like many cultural traditions, there are rules and steps codified for the ‘correct’ way to do hatsu mode, and in order to learn those methods (and share them with anyone who is interested in doing hatsu mode themselves without any undue anxiety about faux pas) I travelled to Kasama Inari Shrine in Kasama, Ibaraki. Kasama Inari is named as one of Japan’s top 3 Inari (meaning rice god) shrines, and every year welcomes roughly 8 hundred thousand people for hatsu mode in the first 3 days of the new year. With a history spanning 1360 years and a friendly and informative staff, Kasama Inari was a fascinating place to learn the basics.

To begin with, in order to even enter the holy ground of the shrine it is important to purify oneself, explained head priest Masahiko Hagiwara. To that end, each and every shrine has a basin placed outside of it with free flowing water and ladles placed on top. By using the clear, cold water, one removes the impurities of the outside world and cleanses both body and spirit for a communion with the gods. Taking the ladle first in the right hand one pours a little water over the left palm, then you switch hands and repeat with the right. Next, making sure to get more water if you have run out, you pour a little into your left hand and briefly touch the fingers to your lips to drink a little, using that same hand to cover your mouth as you expel it into the trough below, making sure not to be seen or heard by those around you. Finally, if there is any water left you raise the ladle vertically so that the water flows out of the bowl of the ladle and over the handle to purify the place you have touched for the next person. Now you are ready to head inside.

In shrines the center of any room or walkway is reserved for the gods, so one must make sure to keep to the left or right. In Shinto, the left is considered superior to the right, and usually gets precedence. Correspondingly, when approaching the internal altar of a shrine one is to climb stairs and lead with the foot farthest from the altar itself, relative to one’s position in the room. For example, if entering a room where the altar is on the left, one would advance by using the right foot, even going so far as to mount the first two steps using the right foot initially.

At the altar itself there are different methods of worship, but the most common ritual is ‘two bows, two claps, one bow’. Both bowing and handclapping have been deemed reverent and deferential in Japanese society for centuries, and it is still common to use the number of claps and bows to indicate the level of respect, but since the Meiji era shrines have simplified and codified the practice to make it easier for worshippers.
The bows themselves are meant to show deep reverence, meaning a 90 degree angle, using the hands on the front of the legs as a guide. By bowing and sliding the hands down until the fingers reach the top of the knees, one can easily do a proper bow while maintaining both a straight back and effective balance.

After two such bows the pilgrim raises hands to heart height and placing the palms together, holding them easily in front while keeping them in line with shoulders so as to avoid the elbows sticking out at the sides. Next, the right hand slides back and down just slightly, enough to expose the fingers on the left hand up to the first joint but still maintaining full contact. This is part of the left ascendancy principal, but also a way of changing the sound to a more solemn one. The clap itself is made by separating the hands to shoulder-width, then bringing them in slowly to a palm’s width apart, pressing against the air as if to compress it, finally narrowing the gap to make the sound. Two claps are made, the right hand returned to full position with the left, then drawn back towards the head still in prayer position. This is when the supplicant makes their expressions of thanks or requests for future boons. Finally, one more deep bow is made, and the process is complete.

two bows two claps one bow
Bow twice Clap hands twice
(and resume prayer stance)
lastly, one more bow

Variations include offering a small branch of the sakaki tree, dressed with a purifying paper necklace (both provided by the shrine). After taking the branch and passing the emotions one wishes to communicate into it, one rotates it clockwise to present it upon the altar cut end first. Then follows the ‘two bows, two claps, one bow’ ritual as usual. Finally, when leaving the shrine one is sometimes offered the opportunity to take part in some warmed sake. This sake was originally an offering to the gods, and by sharing in it one is able to take into one’s body some of the gods’ essence, bringing renewed energy and good fortune for the future.

  

Mr. Hagiwara’s explanations and demonstrations were all very thorough and interesting, and being offered the opportunity to do it myself really helped cement the process in memory. But, as he kept emphasizing, the most important thing was to approach with the right frame of mind; substance over form, as always. So, if you are planning on visiting a shrine for hatsu mode, don’t worry too much about forgetting the procedure. Just watch those around you and try to keep pace, as long as you are sincere it will come across. If you happen to choose Kasama Inari for your hatsu mode this year, there is a free guide service available for foreigners (English). For details please contact the Kasama International Association 5 days prior to your visit at 090-2761-8711. Happy New Year and good luck!

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