Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Memories of Japan: A Visit to a Shintō Shrine on New Year's Day

Somewhere near Nishinomiya, in the Greater Osaka area
on New Year's Day.  It looks like this small shrine is
deserted, but it wasn't.  People just very kindly
cleared the area for the few seconds it took my
father-in-law to snap the picture.
Today is Tuesday, December 31, 2013.

My first New Year visit to a Shintō shrine was in January 1978.  Yes, dear, that is before many of you were even born. 

For the occasion, I wore a woolen kimono with jacket (haori) that had been made for me.  For some reason, my mother-in-law thought I would look good in fall colors.  Oh, well... My obi (sash) was a deep red color, as a bright red would have been unbecoming for a married woman. Under the front part there is a stiff board with a little pocket that I could put my train ticket or a bit of money in.)  My sandals (zōri) were made of patent leather with white soles and reddish thongs.  The white tabi socks with split toe were warm enough.  The "purse" didn't go with the outfit, in my opinion, but it was borrowed from my mother-in-law, and that's what she had.  (I could just as well have brought a pretty paper bag in which to carry my essentials for the day.  Hindsight is such a wonderful thing.) 

Underneath the kimono I wore a two-piece under-kimono tied with a separate belt and detachable white collar (eri).  Younger women wear their eri collar tied a little tighter at the base of the throat, and the back is supposed to stick out a bit to show off the nape of the neck (a part of the body that is considered sexy – don't ask).  For older women, the eri is tied a little more loosely in front so the V-neck is slightly lower, and the back of the collar hugs the neck a bit more (but never completely).   The haori jacket has ties in front to keep it from flapping around. 

Some of you may have heard of jackets called happi ("happy" coats).  I guess you could say that the difference between haori and happi is that haori are made to match a particular kimono, while a happi is a separate item of clothing.  Happi are made of cotton and worn in the summer, only when attending festivals.  They were originally worn only by servants of the rich and powerful, and they always displayed the "family crest" (design) of their employer.  Today the crest is often the logo of some company.

Dressing in a kimono can be done by one person, but it's much easier to do if you have help, which I had from my mother-in-law.  The kimono itself is always much longer than you are tall.  You put it on your shoulders and check to see that the back seam is straight down the middle of your back.  Then you pull the kimono up so that the hem is just above your feet and wrap the kimono around your body.  It's very important that you put the right side on first, then overlap that with the left side, so the open seam goes down your right leg.  If you don't, you are putting the kimono on "backward," and this is a funeral custom!

You hold the extra material just above your waist while someone ties your kimono shut at the waist with a thin tie called koshi himo that ties in the front.  You smooth the extra material over this tie, then take another wider tie called a datejime belt on top of the excess material, making sure the material is smoothed down around the waist and hips.  Over this, you put your actual obi, with a stiff board in front called a makura that is placed just under the sash, so that it will not wrinkle in front.  The back of the sash is pulled up and looped over to form a "drum." in back.  For summer yukata, the obi gets tied into a bow, but a lot of girls use an "instant obi" tie in back that is sold with sashes for summer.  The instant obi reminded me of the kind of modern men's tie that is already tied for you and it just has little hooks that attach to the collar. It had a wire thingy that you used to hook the bow into the back of the obi, then you could tie it around your waist in front and tuck the ties under the main obi.  Click here for some pictures of a woman putting on her kimono.

For a silk kimono, there is also an extra piece of pretty material (obi age) that is tucked in around the top of the sash, but allowed to peek out a bit in front (apparently this is also considered kind of sexy).  Over the middle of the sash another decorative cord (obi jime) is tied.  Also, when wearing a silk kimono, over the basic undergarments, you wear another under-kimono that can be washed, unlike the outer kimono, which can only be spot-cleaned. The under kimono is worn to protect the outer kimono from body oils and sweat that will damage the kimono fabric. 

My ex-husband's woolen kimono and jacket were worn over long underwear (you can see the top of his white undershirt), and his sash (obi) was a kind of black chiffon material.  His wooden footwear are called geta, and he wore them with black tabi socks.  I had some geta, too, but I wore them only in summer, with bare feet when I put on a cotton kimono called a yukata.

This picture was taken by my father-in-law, who went to the shrine with us.  My mother-in-law stayed home that day. We didn't go to a very large shrine, just a small one not far from home.  

Meiji Jingu on New Year's Day
I remember the trains, streets, and the shrine itself being very crowded.   Millions of people visit a temple on New Year's Day.  One of the biggest shrines in the country, Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, had 3.2 million visitors in January 2010, for example, and the other four major shrines in Japan had nearly 3 million visitors each.  That's a lot of people, and that doesn't even count the millions who (like me), went to smaller, local shrines.  Because of the crowds, you end up spending a lot of time standing in line: waiting to get to the altar to pray, waiting to buy omamori (good luck charms), waiting in line to make a votive offering and write your wish on a pine board, or waiting to have your fortune (omikuji) printed.

Omikuji.  I couldn't read mine.
If your omikuji predicts bad luck, you can fold it up and tie it onto a tree on the shrine grounds so that the prediction will not come true. If it is good, you can still tie it to a tree to increase your luck. The upshot is that there are an awful lot of omikuji tied to trees at the shrines. The omikuji tells you about various areas of your life, such as business and love.  Sometimes a good luck charm automatically comes with the omikuji. I sometimes wondered whether it would be economically more productive for the shrine to give people a bad fortune, so that they would buy a charm, too, or feel like giving a bigger offering, but of course I never said that to anyone, as it would have been rude.

When you make a votive offering, you get a little pine board and a marker, and you write your wish on the board, then leave it on a special display wall at the shrine.


Tying omikuji at the shrine
Votive offerings in the shape of torii gates

You get a pine board for your votive offering on which you can write your wishes,
then leave the board at the shrine.

I no longer remember what my fortune said.  I couldn't read it in any event.  I don't ever remember making a votive offering, but other people I knew made them.  High school students prayed to pass the university entrance exams.  Married women that I knew prayed for a baby.  University students about to graduate prayed to get a good job with a big company that would "take care" of them for life.  Some businessmen I knew prayed for a promotion at work.

Business people praying at Kanda Shrine in Tokyo. 
The white masks are worn when you have a cold that
you don't want to give to others.  Photo credit: BBC News
Speaking of work, on the first day back at work, many Japanese businessmen make a visit to a local shrine in the morning to pray for success in business.  Here is a picture of business people making a visit to the local shrine in Kanda, a section of Tokyo. 

The day pretty much passed in a blur, and by the time we got home I was so tired that I had to take a long nap.  My mother-in-law sympathized.  She knew how hard it is to walk with little mincing steps in a kimono, and that you can't really breathe deeply in a kimono, either, because it's tied pretty tightly.  I think I did a pretty good job of posing for the picture, though.  My feet are slightly pigeon-toed, which is the way you are supposed to stand in a kimono.  I threw every other picture of my ex-husband out except this one, not because I wanted to remember him, but because I wanted to remember myself on this particular day.  :-)

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