Culture New Year at a Shrine or Temple in Okinawa

More information about the unique Okinawan culture
I know many of you have spent the New Years a few times on Okinawa already, but have you ever wondered what the locals do to celebrate it? If you answered, “get drunk,” you’re not completely wrong!

If you’d like to be a part of the celebration next year, here’s everything that you have to know about the goings-on:

While Christmas may arguably be the most important, family-oriented, holiday for you in the States, New Year, or shogatsu rather, is the biggest one in Japan. Because of this, most businesses are closed from the 1st to the 3rd of January. Additionally, families generally gather to spend the days together.

Before families and individuals visit their relatives, it’s a custom that they stop by a store along the way for gifts to bring with them. The costs of the individual gifts can range anywhere from 500 yen to limitless, depending on the person’s choosing.

As many of you already know or have quite possibly learned due to heavy traffic at the beginning of January, it’s also common for Japanese people to start the new year by visiting a shrine or temple.

What’s the difference between a shrine and a temple? Most modern-day Japanese people aren’t quite sure of that answer as they’re now quite often used interchangeably. To get to the root of the true answer would be another post on its own, too.

If you're planning on visiting a shrine or temple for the first time, you might be confused about what to do as you will see many things ranging from festivities to worshiping.

Here is a general outline of what to expect so that it will be easier for you when the new year comes around, whether you decide to go alone, with a friend, or on a tour.

Shrine entrance through torii

First, you will go through the entrance of the shrine or temple and see a temizuya, or a pavilion-like building. Underneath it will be a fountain in which your hands should be washed. Your left hand should be washed first, followed by the right. Optionally, as you may be uncomfortable doing so, you would rinse your mouth out by cupping the water with your left hand as well. This would then complete the purification of your spirit prior to worship.

People waiting to wash hands at the temizuya Process of washing hands in Okinawa, Japan at a Shrine's temizuya

Next, depending on the place you visit, groups will be guided toward, or fall in line, to the main building. This is where you would toss money—a 5 yen coin being the best because of the connotation of the number 5—into a box. After tossing your coin into the box, your hands should be placed together in a praying manner and worship to follow. This is more like a wish or dream for the year to come.

Toss a lucky 5 yen coin, or more, into the wooden box and pray for a wish or dream to come true next year

After worshiping, continue with the flow of foot traffic to the table containing salt and omiki (sacred Japanese sake offered to a god). First, you’ll take a pinch of salt and place it in your mouth. Next, you will be offered a small bowl of sake.

Take a pinch of salt and sip on sake at a Shrine during the New Year

Down the hatch! Or, place your finger in the bowl and put some on your forehead instead.

After this process is complete, it’s up to you or the group you’re with to decide what to do next, of course, but, it’s recommended to stick around to see more.

On your way into the shrine or temple, you might have noticed strings strewn about with many papers tied to them. These papers are omikuji, or, other people’s fortunes for the year. They can be purchased for as little as 100 yen, but, there are other, fancier ones at higher prices.

Purchase an omikuji, or fortune, for the year at a shrine in Okinawa, Japan See what your fortune for the coming year in Okinawa will be

If you decide to buy one, get ready to see your fortune! Then, tie it to a string with the others.

Before you go back to the festivities and food vendors to tank up on delicious local foods, you could also pick up some lucky charms. For all the animal lovers out there, there are even ones that are said to spread the luck to your pets.

Purchase lucky charms if you would like

If that’s not your thing, getting a different one to bring luck back to your home or business might be something to do as a reminder of your time here in Okinawa. There are even some that are reasonably priced!

Purchase a different one for your home or business, or as a reminder of your time in Okinawa Purchase a different one for your home or business, or as a reminder of your time in Okinawa Some are smaller and reasonably priced as a keepsake to remind you of your time in Okinawa

Every country has their own customs that are unique. While here, you ought to get a glimpse of the true Japanese culture and embrace it before it’s too late.

View all the 2019 New Year's Day pictures and their accompanying descriptions for more context to this article from the Gokoku Jinjya Shrine 2019 gallery.
The views expressed on this page by users and staff are their own, not those of Okinawa.Org.
About Author
Snow is the wife of @David, co-founder of Okinawa.Org, and a local national. She dedicates her time contributing posts about the Japanese language in the Language Corner forum as well as posts about Okinawan culture and other amazing things to do in Okinawa in the Okinawa blog.



What a difference two years — and a worldwide pandemic — can make!

Our family still enjoyed going to this temple this year. However, they did make a few changes to make it "Covid friendly. First of all, you weren't able to partake in washing your hands or rinsing your mouth out at the fountain entrance, for obvious reasons. The other change was widening the box that you toss money into to 15 meters (50 feet) wide to allow for maximum social distancing while praying.

These two changes seemed a bit counterproductive, at least the box widening change did.

After the ceremonial traditions were done, it was jam together once again for fortune papers and lucky charms, and then, of course, food and game vendors right next to each other.

Everyone was masked up, so I'm sure we were all fine. Though, the Covid in Okinawa numbers are on a rise again, so we'll just have to wait it out to see if this year's festivities had any effect on the spread.

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