Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's Day (2007) - Pt. 3 -The Shrine Area

Among all the pictures my husband took on New Year's day, these are the ones I'm least qualified to speak about because they involve Japanese religious rituals with which I'm relatively unfamiliar. The truth is that the reason I'm unfamiliar with them is that the vast majority of my students don't understand them either. Those who visit shrines on New Year's eve or New Year's day go through the motions but know very little about the underlying meaning.

The extent to which I know about them is largely related to what I learned during my serious preoccupation with sumo. A lot of shinto purification rituals are a part of sumo so I can tie what the wrestlers did before entering the ring and how they dressed with some of the scenes at the shrine.

The picture above is an area which eventually leads into a shrine but isn't an entry area itself. This point represents where a back of a long line to actually reach the shrine ends.

This is a combinations of photos of sections of the line. If you click on it and look at the bigger view, you get a better idea of how it snaked around a block. The line was about 150-200 people deep around 3:30 pm. The first picture is by the crosswalk shown in the first picture.

The line eventually leads to this point of general entry into the area of celebration. You may notice that there are crossing guards at both ends of the line helping out.

This is the ultimate destination of those in the line. People step up to it, clap their hands, pray and throw money into the white box that they are standing in front of.

This second view shows that the box is very large and hollow. My students do tell me about this process as some of them do it. They say they generally pray for the usual things like good health, prosperity and well-being. It's not a particularly deep or religious experience and most of them do it as a custom more than out of a sincere feeling that it will affect the outcome of the coming year. I've never actually met a deeply spiritual Japanese person who isn't a member of a Christianity-based religion. That doesn't mean they aren't out there but I don't think there are many of them.

This is a little area where people can do a purification ritual . My husband said the line for this area was relatively short compared to the area where prayers were made and contributions tossed into the box.
This is a closer look at the water and the cups. My husband said he did not see what people actually did but this type of long-handled cup is familiar to me from watching sumo. Sumo wrestlers drink from such cups (and spit out the water) before entering the ring. They also toss salt into the ring. I don't know if people drink water in this area near the shrine or if they wash with it but, if it involves drinking, it may explain the short lines. They may not feel entirely comfortable with sharing the cups with strangers.

The little strips of paper attached to this frame are tied there by the visitors. People write their wishes for the coming year on them. I've seen these types of strips hung in a wide variety of areas including subway stations. There are little year of the boar placards hanging around the top.

This is a close-up of one of the placards. You can buy them for 500 yen (about $4.50) or so from vendors near the shrine. My husband bought me one as a souvenir and its hanging next to my computer desk now. Before he told me about buying one, I mentioned that I thought they were nice and I'd have purchased one had I been there. I guess he knows me pretty well. ;-)

We are uncertain about what this area is for but the sign mentions a specific date (November 22, 1990) and the royal family. The altar design reminds me of the small altars in Japanese homes where people pray to their ancestors but I doubt this is related to the internment of royalty. However, I could be wrong.

These are sacred arrows or "hamaya" which are good luck charms. They are supposed to ward off demons because of their ability to slay evil creatures. The price on these items in Japanese is 1,000 or 2,000 yen (about $9-$19). I'm not sure what the rakes are all about but the character says "hand".

This is a collection of tiny little bells shaped in the figures of the Chinese zodiac. Each is 500 yen or about $4.00. They are about an inch and a half long and an inch high. My husband bought me the tiger one as a souvenir. They're incredibly adorable and I'd have had to resist buying one of each had I been there. They're so rounded and stylized that it's a little hard to make out what each one is without looking up the animals represented in the zodiac. Click on the picture to see the large version and try and guess.

This is what becomes of last year's little souvenirs and good luck charms. It's not a pretty sight, is it? All the lovely items you buy become outdated and part of a large pile of trash.

The trash is put to "good use" though because it's used to keep fires burning to keep people warm. I'm guessing there is a spiritual reason why these items should be burned or most people wouldn't bother carrying them back to the shrine and would just toss them (because it'd be a lot easier). I think the trash heap is so large because more people come at night when there are fireworks and there's a greater sense of anticipation as the clock ticks down and they have more than can reasonably be burned over night. The backlog is likely saved to burn during the less-heavily trafficked daytime visits.

What's a festival without food? There were several food vendors there including this takoyaki (octopus dumplings) stand. The fellow on the right was so tuckered out by all the holiday activity that he went to sleep on the spot. I always marvel that so many Japanese people seem able to sleep in uncomfortable situations and places.

Here's a close-up of the takoyaki-making process. It's not really a pretty sight. The preparation area looks none too clean but I guess these people have probably been going non-stop since last night and a mess was bound to happen. Maybe the napping fellow is in charge of the clean-up.

What Japanese New Year's festivities are complete without crepes? That wonderful, traditional Japanese, er...well, perhaps not everything is about tradition. This fellow uses limited space to his advantage and both stores his stock of sauces and fillings and advertises the varieties available. The oddest item on the table is the peanut butter. Peanut butter and crepes sounds like an unfortunate clash of French and American culture.

This is the okonomiyaki table. This is one of those dishes which is hard to explain because it includes a lot of variations by region and to the taste of the consumer. It's more or less a savory cross between an omelet and a pancake with very little flour and a large amount of egg as the base then a wide variety of other crap thrown on top. I had this once when I first came to Japan and the sauce and fish components put me off. Every Japanese person I've ever asked about this dish is crazy about it.

Finally, we have a little boy playing a badminton-style game with his mother in the area. I'm not sure what this game is but my husband said several other kids were also playing it with what looked like a shuttlecock.

My overall impression after reading my brother-in-law's coverage of night celebrations and seeing my husband's pictures of day celebrations is that the day-time events and shops that remain open seem more kid-oriented (or family-oriented) in general and that you'll find people with families out and about on New Year's day whereas you'll see mostly adults late at night. This makes sense since it's probably harder for kids to stay up late (even if they would enjoy the fireworks) and it's colder in the evenings.


Tokyo Rosa said...

hi, shari!

happy new year!

my very first week i went to japan, i was in omiya and i went to a shrine. because i was interested, a man at the shrine explained what to do with the water. it is for purifying oneself before entering the shrine. first, you pour some water over the left hand, then the right, then you rinse your mouth (don't drink any!). i did that at every shrine i visited in japan from then on.

the strips of paper are omikuji, fortunes. there are several printed in english and they cost 100 yen. since my commute took me through asakusa, i often stopped at the sensoji-kannon shrine to get an omikuji to see how my day was going to go. there are 4 or 5 levels of fortunes with daikuji being the highest (i don't remember the others!). after you read it, you tie it to a tree branch or wire rack. if it's a bad fortune (or a good one) you just let it go.

(maybe the paper you saw in subways was for tanabata?)

the ema (wooden plaques) are interesting. i used to write one whenever i had the spare 500 yen. a friend writes his wishes for the coming year on several different ema: one for himself, one for his family, one for me.

i always asked many questions of students and they were always eager to explain things to me when they found out i had tried the ritual without knowing the meaning or what i was doing. i learned a lot about omikuji, ema, those paper wrapped charms (i can't remember the name) that some shrines sell that japanese carry around. i guess because i could show students and say, "i bought this because everyone else was, but i don't know what it's for!" made me a bit of a comic figure, but people were always willing to help a foreigner who was trying to learn the right (read: japanese) way of doing things!

last year, i was at miyajima/itsukushima, the shrine near hiroshima. many students were shocked that i would choose to travel to such an important shrine on such an important day, you know, since i was a foreigner and all. though i was never religious in the u.s., i tried to participate in japanese spirituality, and the opportunites to do so presented themselves often. in fact, i think the japanese are more spiritual in general than are americans--without any of that scary fanaticism that is so abundant here!

Shari said...

Happy New Year, tokyo rosa. :-)

Thanks for the information. You must have had far more spiritually-oriented students than i. ;-) I've been quizzing nearly every one of them since the middle of December and they only gave me vague information.

They did tell me they wrote wishes on strips of paper at New Year's but it could be they misunderstood my question or I misunderstood them. You're probably right that the ones I saw in the subway were up during tanabata.

I'm afraid that I can't agree that the Japanese are more "spiritual" but it could be just the people I've encountered and it may be that we define spirtuality differntly and therefore see it differently in our students. It's not really all that important either way. :-)

Only one of my students seems to be relatively interested in spiritual pursuits and she is part of sokka-gakkai. The rest just don't seem to care at all.

Mind you, I don't think all Americans are spirtual because they are religious but I do think a lot of them have a better knowledge or conception of what they believe (which is why they are so rigid in many cases). Most Japanese people I've spoken to are pretty vague about what they think about such things but perhaps they just can't or won't tell me.