• Saizen Tours

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! あけましておめでとうございます!

2020 was a year that tested and challenged us all. So, let us bid goodbye to the Year of the Rat and look forward to the Year of the Ox – this year gives us positivity, honesty, loyalty and strength; bring on its element of earth, representing stability and nourishment. We wish you and your family a happy and healthy Year of the Ox as we stay positive and wait patiently for the day when Australia’s borders open and we can look forward to travelling overseas again.


Hatsumōde 初詣 is the first shrine visit in the New Year. Before the clock strikes midnight there are long lines of people at major shrines and temples, patiently waiting to worship and ring in the new year. Shinto shrines are more commonly visited however visits to temples are also popular. People begin arriving a few hours before midnight on the evening of the 31st December often with large crowds arriving very early at the most famous shrines in Japan.

I took the above photo a few years ago at Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto. We arrived at 10pm and the photo was taken at 1am. As can be seen, we were still a long way from the shrine entrance! Over the years I have visited a number of shrines for Hatsumōde in Tokyo, Narita, Kyoto and Hida-Takayama, with my preference being the alps for a less crowded and local experience. At Takayama the snow was gently falling as we trudged through the streets at midnight to visit the neighbourhood shrine. Large bonfires were burning to keep everyone warm, hot sake was freely handed out and we joined the short lines to pray, be blessed by the shrine priests and then take turns to ring the huge bell for good fortune.

Some of Japan's most popular shrines and temples to visit during the first 3 days of Hatsumōde are:

1. Meiji Jingu Tokyo – 3.2 million visitors

2. Kawasaki Daishi Heikenji, Kanagawa – 3.1 million visitors

3. Naritasan Shinshoji – 3 million visitors

4. Asaksua Sensoji Tokyo – 2.8 million visitors

5. Fushimi Inari Taisha Kyoto – 2.7 million visitors

6. Sumiyoshi Taisha, Osaka – 2.6 million visitors

7. Atsuta Jingu, Aichi – 2.3 million visitors

8. Hikawa Shrine, Saitama – 2.1 million visitors

9. Dazaifu Tenmangu, Fukuoka – 2 million visitors


Traditional Japanese lucky charms, called Omamori お守り, are sold throughout the year at temples and shrines but are particularly popular at new year. The omamori is a small brocade pouch that contains paper or wood inscribed with a sacred text or sutra that has been blessed. They come in a variety of colours depending on the type of blessing. Popular omamori include health, wealth, education, traffic and love. Since it is a customary to bring old omamori from the previous year back to the shrine or temple to be ceremonially burned then Hatsumōde is the perfect time to purchase a new omamori.

Omikuji おみくじ are fortunes written on a strip of paper. Usually these are only in Japanese however these days some temples and shrines in major cities may also have English omikuji. Many people start the new year by checking their fortune with an omikuji on New Year’s Day. To obtain an omikuji you place a ¥100 in the donation box and then shake another box with tall sticks. Chose a stick and read the number on the stick. Replace the stick in the container and then take your fortune from the drawer with the corresponding number. If you receive a bad fortune do not keep it! Tie your fortune to a pole or a tree and leave it at the temple.

• (大吉): great blessing

• (中吉): middle blessing

• (小吉): small blessing

• (吉) blessing

• (半吉): half-blessing

• (末吉): future blessing

• (末小吉): future small blessing

• (凶): curse

• (小凶): small curse

• (半凶): half-curse

• (末凶): future curse

• (大凶): great curse

Ema 絵馬 are small, wooden plaques used to write prayers or wishes. The word Ema is written with two kanji, literally meaning ‘picture horse’ as horses were believed to carry messages from the gods. In the past horses were also donated to shrines in order to seek good blessings. Horses are expensive commodities therefore visitors would often instead leave wooden plaques with images of horses. Gradually smaller plaques could be purchased to leave wishes at the shrine or temple. These days the Ema can be purchased in a variety of shapes and designs. Once Ema are purchased (¥500 ~ ¥1,000) pens are provided to write a wish on the blank side and the Ema are then hung on a specially dedicated board in the shrine or temple grounds. Common wishes are for health, family, love and success.


The Daruma 達磨 is a hollow, round, traditional Japanese doll, modelled after Bodhidharma who is the founder of Zen Buddhism. The Daruma doll has no legs or arms as a reminder of Bodhidharma losing his limbs in his quest to reach enlightenment through self-sacrifice and meditation. The Daruma is designed to be impossible to tip over as they always roll back into an upright position. For this reason the doll serves as a reminder than no matter how many times one could get knocked down, one must always endure and stand back up in order to achieve a goal. Related to this is the Japanese expression nanakorobi yaoki, which loosely translates into “seven times down, eight times up”. Thus in Japan the Daruma has become a symbol of luck and perseverance to never give up! The Daruma is purchased at New Year and a wish is made and one eye painted on. The Daruma is then place where it can be seen daily in your home or at work. Once your wish or goal has been achieved the other eye is painted on. Write your wish on the back of the Daruma and return it to the temple for burning at New Year. A new Daruma can then be bought and the cycle is repeated.


One of the most exciting traditions at New Year for children is receiving gifts of otoshidama おとしだま envelopes containing money. These are given in the first few days of New Year from the 1st to the 3rd January. Children usually receive the otoshidama envelopes from adult relatives, neighbours and friends up until they graduate from high school. Envelopes are usually purchased in bulk with a large range of designs, from elegant designs to zodiac animals to popular cartoon characters. New notes are usually obtained from the bank and the notes are folded into three before placing into the otoshidama envelopes. The amount given varies depending on the age of the child and the giver's relationship with the child. Average amounts are from ¥2,000 for younger children to ¥5,000 for high school students.


In Western societies we traditionally send Christmas cards at Christmas time. In Japan the tradition is to send new year greeting cards called nengajō (年賀状) or new year postcards called nenga-hagaki (年賀はがき). The custom began in the Heian Period (794-1185) when the noble class would send letters to people whom they could not meet personally to give new year greetings. As Japan modernised during the Meiji Restoration (1868~1912) its postal service was developed and the new tradition of sending New Year cards flourished.