In first days of the new year, millions of Japanese honor religious tradition

HANAZONO shrine is not a place of particular beauty. Few tourists come to walk up the stone pathway to the wooden structure which sits beneath a curved tile roof. They are more attracted by the vibrant night life of nearby Shinjuku district. But at 3 a.m. on New Year's Eve, even in a wintery chill, Tokyoites stood patiently in a long line. They warmed themselves with hot amazake (sweet rice wine) as they waited to ring in the Year of the Dragon. The stone walkway was lined with gaily lit red and white paper lanterns. Stall keepers hawked fried noodles and grilled octopus.

Hanazono is a neighborhood shrine, one of thousands of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples all over Japan where ordinary people go to mark the important moments - from birth and the naming of a child to marriage and death. But no time is more important, has more mystical portent to them, than the New Year's holiday.

During the first seven days of a new year, Japanese from the tiniest tot to the most elderly grandfather dress up for hatsumode, the first visit to the shrine. Whether encumbered by stunning stiff silk kimono or attired in the latest fashion, they go.

This year, by police estimate, almost 80 million people, or 2 out of every 3 Japanese, visited temples and shrines during the first three days of the year. The turnout is evidence that even in these days of awesome materialism, when older Japanese worry that the younger generation has been spoiled by affluence, traditional values retain a powerful pull.

Japanese go to cleanse away the burdens of the old year, and to seek good fortune for the as-yet-unspoiled annum. From the stroke of midnight, in every Buddhist temple, huge bells are rung 108 times, symbolizing the banishment of the year's sins.

Many pilgrims go to famous shrines and temples, like Tokyo's vast gardened Meiji Shrine which attracted 4 million visitors this year. But most go to places like Hanazono.

The patient folk at Hanazono waited to climb stone stairs to the Shinto shrine where two bronze bells hang from the eaves. The men and women eagerly stepped up to a thickly twisted cloth cord, grabbed it with clear purpose and tugged it twice to rattle the bell and wake the gods. They pressed their palms togther in prayer for a good new year.

Nearby a Shinto priest dispensed rolled up paper fortunes for a contribution of 100 yen (about 80 cents). Those who received good fortunes carefully tied them to the bare branches of nearby trees. Along with the fortune, visitors bought arrows trimmed with white feathers, protective symbols that fight off devils. Last year's arrows were tossed onto a bonfire, where the collected misfortunes were burned away.

For the Japanese, like their Chinese neighbors, good fortune cannot be gained without a careful propitiation of the gods. These rituals are a combination of Japan's ancient shamanistic folk religion of Shintoism and the later import of Chinese- and Korean-influenced Buddhism.

Variations on these two religious traditions have evolved over the years. One special worship associated with the first week of the new year is the visit to shrines and temples dedicated to the seven gods of good luck or shichifukujin.

In one old neighborhood of Tokyo, along the Sumida River, Tokyoites were out in the bright winter sun of New Year's Day walking a route that dates back to medieval times.

Each temple or shrine is dedicated to a particular god and sells a miniature clay statue of its diety. The visitor also purchases a small plaster boat with paper sail, the takara bune, or treasure boat, to carry the gods.

As the tradition goes, when all the gods are placed on the boat and displayed in the home, they will bring a person a happy, prosperous year. The practice is said to date back to the medieval era when merchants worshipped a single god to bring business prosperity. Other gods of good luck followed and were grouped together.

The gods themselves originate from a jumble of Indian, Chinese, and Japanese myths. They have come to embody virtues of popularity, longevity, charm, generosity, and wealth.

On the walk near the Sumida River, the Mimeguri Shrine is the first stop. It is the home of the two most beloved Japanese gods - Daikoku and Ebisu.

In the 17th century, this area was mostly rice paddies, and farmers worshipped here. A haiku, the traditional 17-syllable poem, was inscribed in 1693 on a boulder to bring rain for the crops. Today, it stands near the main building.

The two lucky gods are enshrined in a small building. Daikoku is happy god, always depicted standing on bales of rice and carrying a mallet that rains gold coins when he shakes it. He was originally the Indian god Mahacala, who protected Buddhism. The Chinese made him into the guardian of the kitchen, a role he retains in Japan with the added association with the rice harvest.

Ebisu is a purely Japanese god, originally worshipped by fishermen. He wears a kimono, a large sea bream under his left arm and a fishing pole in his right hand. Later he became a god of prosperity for merchants.

Another favorite of the seven gods is Hotei, a 6th-century Chinese Zen Buddhist priest who some consider the god of popularity. Hotei is a jolly man with a huge round belly and an enormous sack. The sack is actually empty - Hotei's happiness, the legend goes, comes from things other than wordly possessions.

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