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This file photo shows Shinagawa Shrine in Shinagawa, Tokyo, built in 1637, on the hill near JR Shinagawa Station. People come to celebrate the New Year at the shrine.
This file photo shows Shinagawa Shrine in Shinagawa, Tokyo, built in 1637, on the hill near JR Shinagawa Station. People come to celebrate the New Year at the shrine. (Hiroshi Chida / S&S)

TOKYO — More than 1 million people in Japan are expected to visit Shinto shrines from Jan. 1-3, one of Japan’s biggest holiday seasons.

New Year’s is a time for renewal, a complete end to one year and a start to a new one, according to the Association of Shinto Shrines, or Jinja Honcho.

The season has many traditions for Japanese families, including eating certain foods and visiting shrines and Buddhist temples to welcome the new year and pray for good luck.

Foreigners also can visit shrines to experience an essential part of Japanese culture and, if they’d like, to pray for their own new year blessings

“Foreigners are welcome,” said Hitoshi Okaichi, a Jinja Honcho spokesman. “It is not just religious but it is also part of Japan’s traditional culture. We want [foreigners] to enjoy the atmosphere.”

Okaichi said people visit shrines until about Jan. 15, the lunar new year. They usually visit a local shrine to ask the deities or spirit gods of the area to watch over them during the coming year, he said.

Shrines are the Shinto religion’s houses of worship, while temples serve Buddhists. At shrines, people approach the altar, drop coins in the collection box, clap or ring a bell to awaken the deity and bow to show respect.

Visitors also can purchase their fortunes at the shrine: Shake a container until a stick falls through a hole — the stick corresponds to a paper fortune the attendant gives you. Many people then tie their paper fortunes to trees or keep them if the fortune is good.

The experience is steeped in tradition and shows a spiritual side to Japanese culture. Okaichi recommends foreigners experience these traditions, but said they should take care to follow what others are doing.

“Don’t dress too casually, if possible,” he said. “When people pay visits, dress well and be peaceful within themselves. It’s cold, so people should come dressed appropriately so they won’t catch cold.

“People should follow the etiquette at each shrine,” he added. “When paying a visit, take turns and follow the rules.”

Military chaplains in Japan also offer some words of caution and advice for Americans regarding participating in another religion’s rituals and being a good guest.

Maj. Keith Croom, a pastor at Camp Zama’s main chapel, said visiting a shrine on New Year’s is a great way to learn more about Japanese history and culture.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” he said.

However, he said, visitors should always be respectful and try to learn from what they see.

“I would caution about crossing the line and taking part in a faith you don’t understand. It’s a little disrespectful,” he said. “Instead of just blowing through it and doing what everybody else is doing, try to observe it and learn from it.”

Croom recommended visiting large, more famous places where foreigners aren’t a distraction, such as the famous Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.

Cmdr. (select) Philip J. Pelikan, deputy command chaplain at Yokosuka Naval Base, suggests visiting some of the shrines and temples in Kamakura, including the Daibutsu or “Great Buddha” and the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine.

Japanese people “are happy with any level of interest Americans may show towards these observances and welcome our participation in them,” Pelikan stated in an e-mail. “Common courtesy is the best approach to involvement in any of these things, and they understand if you do not wish to [participate] as well.”

Croom added that, as a Christian, he wouldn’t necessarily participate.

“I don’t go to the temples or shrines and participate because I don’t think it would be an honor to my faith,” he said. “But I love to go and watch the Japanese worshipers do their rituals. I think there’s a lot for us to learn from that.”

For more information about Shintoism and the New Year’s traditions, visit the English Web sites of the Association of Shinto Shrines, www.jinjahoncho.or.jp/en, and the Shinto Online Network Association, www.jinja.or.jp/english/index.html.

Procedures for praying at Shinto shrine

According to the Association of Shinto Shrines, the following steps are taken when praying at a Shinto shrine:

1. Purification. At the wooden reservoir at the entrance, wash your hands and mouth for purification (don’t drink the water). Pick up the wooden ladle with your right hand and pour water over your left, then reverse. Then pour water on your left hand’s cupped palm and rinse your mouth, letting the water fall on the stones around the reservoir. Then pour water on your left hand again. (Some people skip the mouth-washing ritual).

2. Approaching the altar. Drop coins (any amount) into the collection box. Then, follow what the Association of Shinto Shrines calls the “two-two-one” method: Stand straight and bow to 90 degrees two times, clap twice in front of your chest, bow once more.

— Juliana Gittler

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