In a post on Tokyo Cheapo, we listed some traditional Japanese New Year traditions, one of which is hatsumode, the first temple or shrine visit of the year. This is typically done between January 1st-3rd; any first visit later than the first week of January (or the New Year holidays) isn’t typically thought of as hatsumode anymore. Japan has countless temples and shrines, so you don’t have to go to the popular places (which will most likely be crowded anyway); just visiting your local neighborhood shrine will do. But in case you wanted to visit one of the popular choices and/or you want to do some traveling, here are some places to visit, in no particular order. They’re known for being power spots—sacred places brimming with mystical, spiritual energy. (Note: for popular temples and shrines to visit in Tokyo, we’ve already mentioned them in the above article on Tokyo Cheapo.)
1. Ise Grand Shrine (Mie Prefecture)
Japan’s holiest Shinto shrine, Ise Grand Shrine consists of the Inner Shrine, where the sun goddess Amaterasu is enshrined, and the Outer Shrine, which is dedicated to Toyouke, the goddess of agriculture, industry, and life’s daily necessities. They’re a few kilometers apart from each other, so it’s best to start with the Outer Shrine (which can be reached in about 5 minutes on foot from Ise-shi Station), then take a bus to the Inner Shrine. So sacred and important is this shrine that the chief priest or priestess must come from the Japanese Imperial Family. The shrine premises and its architecture may look simple and minimalist, but considering this shrine’s history, how the Sacred Mirror that was handed down to Amaterasu’s grandson is said to be housed there, and the fact that this complex has around 125 smaller shrines, you probably can’t get any more spiritual energy elsewhere in Japan.
2. Izumo Taisha (Shimane Prefecture)
For anything love-related, whether it’s looking for the one, saving a troubled relationship, or hoping to march down the aisle soon, this is the place to go. It’s 5 minutes from Izumo Taisha-mae Station. Like Ise Grand Shrine, this is a shrine with plenty of history; it’s one of Japan’s most ancient shrines. Okinunushi, the Shinto god of love and marriage, is enshrined here, but since this shrine is also very sacred, it’s said that on the tenth month of the lunar calendar (which would usually be November), Japan’s 8 million deities gather here to talk about people’s fates for the upcoming year. When paying your respects here, it’s said that you have to clap four times instead of the usual two, because you’re also praying on behalf of your partner in life (even though s/he hasn’t come into the picture yet!).
3. Itsukushima Shrine (Hiroshima Prefecture)
Known for its famous torii in the water (said to be one of Japan’s most beautiful views), this shrine on Itsukushima island (also known as Miyajima) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entire complex is built over water, and locals try to maintain its purity by not allowing any births or deaths to take place on the island—pregnant women approaching birth or those at death’s door have to leave for the mainland. At high tide, the seemingly floating torii is a sight to behold, but at low tide, you can get a closer view of the torii, if there’s any consolation for missing a scenic sight.
4. Kiyomizu-dera (Kyoto Prefecture)
This is one of Japan’s most popular temples, as far as tourists are concerned. There are a lot of reasons for this temple to be crowded: cherry blossom season, autumn leaves, and of course—hatsumode. It’s got a rich history and has several legends associated with it, as you can read here. With its famous Otowa Waterfall, which has three different streams of water for three different kinds of luck (longevity, academic success, and love), it’s no wonder people see this as a great place to kick off the new year.
5. Sumiyoshi Taisha (Osaka Prefecture)
This shrine is one of the top hatsumode choices in Japan, seeing millions of visitors each year. It is the head Sumiyoshi shrine; Sumiyoshi shrines enshrine the three gods of sailing and the seas, and there are over 2,000 of them around Japan. Such shrines—Sumiyoshi Taisha being no exception—tend to have a distinctive architecture called Sumiyoshi-zukuri, characterized by, among others, straight rather than curved roofs. The premises are a sight to behold, so even though the seas hardly have much relevance in most people’s lives, many visit Sumiyoshi Shrine—just a short walk from Sumiyoshitaisha, Sumiyoshikoen, or Sumiyoshitoriimae Station—during the New Year.
6. Mt. Koya (Wakayama Prefecture)
As a pilgrimage site for Buddhists, this mountain (which you can read more about here) is filled with temples, so just being here, you will most likely feel the holiness. From January 1-3 at 9:00 am, Shusho-e, a ceremony for world peace, prosperity, and the continued flourishing of Buddhism will be performed at Okunoin’s Torodo (Lantern Hall) and Garan’s Kondo (Golden Hall). There will be another Shusho-e on the 5th at Garan’s Daito (Great Pagoda). Other, smaller temples might have their own ceremonies and rituals as well; the first Goma fire ritual of the year is a thing for some temples.