The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Monday, January 08, 2007

New Year's, Day 3

Katie (one of the other teachers here) and I decided that we should go somewhere after New Year's. I wanted to go to Usa shrine, one hour's drive away, but had been warned that it would be very crowded. We decided to wait until the 3rd, in hopes that the crowds would be a bit thinner by then.

Usa shrine was built in 725, and is the head shrine of Hachiman: the Japanese god of war, agriculture, and the protector of Japan. As such, it's a tremendously important shrine, and it's famous throughout Kyushu, if not all Japan (although one suspects that, if it were located a bit closer to Tokyo, it would be even larger and more famous). It was bound to be a popular destination for New Year's travelers.

Sure enough, even on January 3rd, cars were lined up for 2 kilometres to get into the parking. We hadn't expected that. It took some time to finally get a spot, but it was worth the wait. Outside the shrine, there was a very festive atmosphere. People brought their families, and children were in a frenzied state, spending the money they had been given for their "New Year's gift" at stalls selling carnival-foods, souvenirs, and toys. Everyone was walking around with a big smile on their face.

Inside the shrine gate, things were a bit more solemn. Shrines are always built on places that are deemed to be "special" somehow. Perhaps there is a waterfall there, or a remarkable rock formation, or a particularly old grove of trees. So they are generally quite beautiful, too. There is a real sense of being "present with nature" somehow.

The Shinto priests were busily observing their various rituals. I'm afraid that I have no idea what they are doing, exactly. I took this picture, and afterwards, noticed that nobody else was taking photos. I don't know if it's considered bad taste to take a picture of somebody mid-ceremony, or whether it's just something that nobody else deemed picture-worthy.

Once inside, you proceed into the main shrine enclosure where everybody is praying, making wishes for the coming year, and throwing an offering into the coin box. As the traditional offering is a 5 yen coin (worth about a nickel) the shrine makes its real money by selling charms and various trinkets. A typical New Year's item is a special arrow that (I presume) is meant to protect the family over the coming year.

As I mentioned, shrines usually have some important natural object at their center. This shrine seems to have been built around this extremely ancient tree, but given the age of the shrine itself, I really wonder which is older, the tree or the shrine. This particular tree is thought to give good health to those who touch it, so people were eagerly placing their hands on the tree and then wiping some invisible residue of healthiness on their heads and faces. Of course, I also put my hands on the tree. (Actually I wanted to put my hands on the chick in the miniskirt, but I didn't want to get arrested so soon in the New Year. It's my New Year's resolution not to get arrested until at least March.)

All of that praying, offering money, and laying-on of hands is exhausting, so it was time for some refreshments. I went for the ever-popular meat-on-a-stick! Awesome!

Some kids saw me making stupid faces as I was eating my meat-kebab, so they were intrigued and came up to poke us to see if we were real, kind of like the monkeys touching the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey". But they were pretty cute, so I told them I'd let them be in the picture if they each paid me 100 yen. They agreed, once I had smacked them around a bit.

And a good time was had by all! Now I'm definitely going to have good luck this year!


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