In Japan, New Year’s is way bigger than Christmas. In fact, no shōgatsu (New Year festival) is complete without a ritual visit to the local jinja (shrine).
Kunito sensei, the school nurse, invites Jesse and I to visit her family jinja. Hiyoshi Shrine in Yodoe claims to be the only shrine in Japan located directly opposite a railroad crossing.
As we cross the wooden train tracks and ascend the stone steps into a forest clearing, it feels as though we have left the wardrobe. Time stands still. Single black lamps dot the snow-blanketed landscape, giving the shrine a distinctly Narnia feel.
The compound is hushed and deeply shadowed by tall evergreens, heavy with recent snowfall. Occasionally, the branches above shudder and giant heaps of snow thud to the ground. The air is clean and cold. Tiny snowflakes hang in the air for seconds, then drift softly to earth. It’s as though we’re trapped in a giant snow globe that someone’s just shaken.
Usually, when you enter a Japanese shrine, you will notice shishi (lion dogs) or kitsune (foxes). This one is guarded by shishi as well as saru (monkeys), their mossy faces partially hidden by clumps of snow.
The main hall of the shrine is a beautiful wooden structure with crossed beams that stretch up to the heavens. Its architecture strongly resembles that of Izumo Taisha. The interior is dark and spare, save for shinobigoma (straw horse) and a fluttery, paper-covered object. Omikuji fortunes for the new year line taut strings outside the main hall.
There are also miniature shrines scattered everywhere. Each pays homage to a different god or kami. The snow muffles our claps and clinking coins as we bow, shuffle around the shrines, and go up and down the muddied pathways.
Afterward, we head to Amenomanai (which means “heavenly pure water”), a natural spring source in Yodoe. Its water comes straight from Mount Daisen and even though it’s winter, the water is not too cold. Amenomanai is the only place in Tottori prefecture classified under Japan’s 100 remarkable waters. In a small pond near the spring, a single rainbow trout swims under the snowflakes, nibbling the fish food we offer.
A water wheel stands nearby, covered in moss and snow. For a moment, it looks like the abandoned Arnos Vale water wheel in Tobago. Icicles hang like clear daggers from the thatched roof of a nearby hut. The snow continues to fall softly, bringing a sense of magic to the time and place.
We return to the family home for a traditional New Year’s lunch: sake studded with gold flecks, ozōni, and osechi ryori. Kunito sensei serves two types of ozōni: a sweet one (typical in Yonago) and a savory one (typical in Nanbu). Both include generous helpings of mochi, round rice cakes that are like sticky dumplings. The osechi ryori is served in lacquered boxes and includes neat servings of grilled tai (sea bream), pink and white kamaboko (fish cakes), delicate yellow kazunoko (fish roe), glossy kuromame (black beans), tazukuri (small sardines), and datemaki (egg custard rolls).
The new year already feels different. It’s as though we’ve distilled some intangible essence at Hiyoshi shrine and Amenomanai, something that helps us understand this strange and idiosyncratic place called Japan.
Photos: © Live Lyfe Photography
Did you ever experience New Year’s away from home? How did you feel?
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