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On the morning of January 1st every year, temples across Japan hold a special Buddhist service called Shusho-e to celebrate the new year. Originating over 1,300 years ago, this ceremonial service has evolved into an important Japanese New Year’s tradition for blessing the year ahead with health, happiness and prosperity.


History and Significance


Shusho-e has its roots in a sermon given by the founder of Japanese Buddhism, a monk named Kobo Daishi, on January 1st in the year 816 CE. Held at the famous Buddhist temple complex of Mount Koya in western Japan, Kobo Daishi’s sermon on that day included chanting from the Lotus Sutra, a key Buddhist scripture. His recitation on the dawn of the new year aimed to drive away evil spirits, pray for peace in the world, and bring good fortune for all. This inaugural service set the precedent for temples across Japan to hold similar new year’s blessings each January 1st.


Over the next 500 years, the timing and components of the service evolved. It became customary for Buddhist monks living on Mount Koya to gather on New Year’s Eve for bell-ringing at midnight to welcome the gods of harvest. The next morning, they held the Shusho-e service which came to feature dancing, eating delicacies and more chanting of sutras to commune with protective ancestral spirits. By the 14th century, common people were making pilgrimages to temples on January 1st to receive these powerful blessings for themselves at the very start of the new year.


Now observed nationwide, Shusho-e combines these ancient rituals to spiritually cleanse participants and petition various Buddhas, gods and ancestors to favor them in the coming year with safety from calamity, full rice barns and longevity. The beating of drums and ringing of bells during the service are meant to grab the attention of the spiritual forces and drive away lingering bad energies from the previous year. In this way, it allows everyone to start fresh for the next 12 months.


Practices and Customs


If visiting a temple in Japan on New Year’s Day, you’ll find the Shusho-e service infused with several unique cultural practices consistent across the country. Below are some of the notable parts of this early January ritual:


Sutra Chanting – Buddhist monks clad in ornate robes solemnly chant passages from the Lotus Sutra and other holy texts for upwards of an hour. The sonorous recitation of these ancient scriptures sets an auspicious tone for the new year.


Offering Food – Plates and bowls piled high with mochi (rice cakes), fruits and other delicacies are set out as symbolic offerings to the gods and spirits entreated to bless the participants. Mochi especially is eaten during the first week of January as the sticky rice balls signify familial bonding and wishes for prosperity.


Burning Incense – Large bound bundles of incense sticks are lit so their fragrant smoke can purify the space. As the incense slowly smolders, participants waft the cleansing smoke over themselves to clear out misfortunes that might still be clinging to them from the old year.


Drinking Sacred Sake – At some temples, attendees share cups of omiki, a sacramental rice wine, that have been sanctified by the resident monks. Imbibing this special sake represents internal spiritual cleansing while fostering a communal spirit between everyone present.


Receiving Protection – The climax of Shusho-e comes when guests approach the head monk to receive protective amulets for the new year. These good luck charms, called omamori take various symbolic forms like a clay Daruma doll, silk brocade bag on a tassel or small embroidered cloth pouch holding a folded paper prayer. Supplicants make an offering to receive their amulet which they affix to their home shrine, car rearview mirror or carry in a wallet or purse to ward off ill fortune in 2023.


Ringing the Temple Bell – Before departing, visitors take turns pulling the thick braided rope to swing the massive bronze temple bell producing a resonating gong across the grounds. The joyful boom serves to garner blessings from Buddha himself and chase away lingering bad spirits before everyone returns home to celebrate New Year’s Day with their families.

Shusho-e in Modern Times


In contemporary Japan, the importance placed on this symbolic start to the new year should not be underestimated. Families often make attending the January 1st temple service an essential part of holiday celebrations much like Christians attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Even Japanese who do not particularly consider themselves devout Buddhists will still partake in these archaic rituals of psychic cleansing and intercession to tap into their power just in case.


And nowhere draws bigger Shusho-e crowds than Mount Koya where this cultural touchstone originated. Over 100,000 visitors now flock to this sacred mountain on January 1st making it exceptionally crowded. For this reason, many pilgrims actually attend Shusho-e ceremonies held specially the last few days of December. This allows them to partake in the full ancient liturgy of Kobo Daishi earlier and with fewer people which some consider more auspicious.


Whether held on New Year’s Eve or Day, temples from Sapporo to Naha fill up early with worshippers eager to chant, offer mochi and swirl incense with their neighbors. They share a sense of community as well as determination to begin the year renewed both physically and mentally. Fortified with protective amulets, bells sounding in their ears and the smoke of incense still clinging to their coats, devotees then spill down the temple steps ready to leave misfortune behind and walk forward into better fortunes ahead.

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