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Monday January 7, 2013

Laughter to usher in Oshogatsu

New year tradition: Worshippers queueing up to enter a temple. New year tradition: Worshippers queueing up to enter a temple.

Laughter paves the way for happiness to flow into homes.

HO! Ho! Ho! I was laughing my head off when I read a news report about a laughing event held last Dec 25 at Hiraoka Shrine in Higashi-Osaka, Osaka. The occasion was meant to usher in a more joyous New Year.

Attendees were invited to join the priests in laughter for about 20 minutes at 10am. No kidding! There was even a laughing contest from 11am. I’m sure a good laugh helped to rejuvenate them in preparing for the busiest time of the year as they celebrate Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year) on Jan 1.

What I dread most is spring-cleaning which begins after Christmas. What a backbreaking chore!

I was surprised to learn that several of my Japanese friends do not do any spring-cleaning. The reason? Winter is too cold, so they prefer to do it in spring.

Traditionally, Dec 13 was the day for susuharai (a thorough clean-up). There was an old religious belief that Toshigami (God of the New Year) would visit each household, office or shop after it had been purified by susuharai.

Some believe that Toshigami is a female deity who would not visit a home where the wife had to do all the cleaning. A ploy to get the husband to participate in the preparations, perhaps?

And guess what! A susuharai at temples is open to the public on different days in December. Visitors can watch Kyoto’s Nishii Honganji Temple, Higashi Honganji Temple and Chion-in Temple being spruced up, for free.

However, Yakushiji Temple in Nara charges an admission fee, probably because it has been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The end of the year saw a mad rush for many to finish their spring-cleaning and put up Oshogatsu kazari (New Year decorations) to welcome the deities.

Stores cashed in by selling various kinds of auspicious Oshogatsu kazari: kadomatsu (pine branches for decorating both sides of the entrance), shimenawa (twisted sacred ropes for the Shinto altar), shimekazari (wreath-like decorations on doors), and the like.

Figurines of the Japanese eto (zodiac sign) and other propitious ornaments are popular adornments. The Japanese believe that the snake (this year’s eto) symbolises revivification, fertility and prosperity.

Last Dec 27, I dropped by a temple in Yokohama to see if I could witness any New Year preparations. Some workers were busy preparing the precinct, especially the campanile, for hatsumode.

Hatsumode is the first shrine or temple visit of the New Year. Many usually go for hatsumode during the first three days – starting from a few minutes before the midnight of Omisoka (New Year’s Eve).

When I passed by the temple on two occasions (around midnight of Omisoka and the morning of Jan 1), I was amazed to see a snake-line queue of people which stretched from a nearby shopping arcade to the temple.

Generally, they make wishes for the year, buy amulets and lucky charms, and return old ones to be burnt. For a small offering, they get a random omikuji (prediction of fortune written on strips of paper).

Another tradition is Jyoya no kane – the ritual of “ringing” the temple bell 108 times to signify the changing year. Jyoya means evening of Omisoka and kane means bell.

Some temples charge a small fee for ringing the bell. The bell is struck by a large, round log suspended by ropes. But why 108 times? The most common theory is that tolling of the bell purges the 108 sins that man is said to have. It is tolled 107 times before midnight, with the last strike performed after the transition into the New Year.

Every year, a kanji character is selected to represent the year’s national ethos for the coming year. Kin (gold) was voted as this year’s kanji, as it signifies the gold medals won by Japanese athletes at the London Olympic Games, and other worthy mentions such as the opening of Tokyo Skytree tower, and the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Shinya Yamanaka. And so, let’s hope for a joyous golden Snake Year full of laughter.

Sarah Mori, a Malaysian married to a Japanese, has been living in Japan since 1992.

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