Japan from the inside out

Shogatsu: Hanging ropes instead of stockings in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 16, 2007

CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS are ubiquitous in commercial districts and individual shops throughout Japan this time of year, but at the same time more unobtrusive preparations are underway for the most important holiday in the country: New Year’s Day.

The Big Shimenawa

The Big Shimenawa

The many customs, both religious and secular, associated with the day make it the counterpart of Christmas in Western countries. One such custom is the hanging of shimenawa, ropes made of rice straw, over the exterior doorways of homes–and sometimes the front bumper of automobiles!

They are used to demarcate a place considered sacred and have traditionally been thought to ward off sickness and evil. That’s why they’re hung at Shinto shrines in front of the main hall and on the torii, or front gate. The photo with this post shows the parishioners at the Kameyama Hachiman Shinto shrine in Jinsekikogen-cho, Hiroshima Prefecture, replacing their shimenawa in time for the New Year’s holidays.

The shrine in Hiroshima gets a new shimenawa once every five years or so; the practice started here in 1949, and this year’s replacement was the 11th. The rice straw was gathered from about 1,000 square meters of land in late October after the harvest. Last month a group of 50 men did the work to braid it, and they hung it at the shrine entrance a couple of weeks ago. They started at 8:00 in the morning and finished in time for lunch; after all that work, they must surely have worked up an appetite.

The shrine priest remarked that fires caused serious damage throughout the town this year and hoped the new shimenawa would help protect them in the year to come.

This particular rope is much larger than usual: it is roughly 8 meters long, 1.2 meters in diameter at its widest point, and weighs about 300 kilograms. Nonetheless, it still isn’t nearly as big as the Big Daddy of shimenawa at the Izumo Shinto shrine in Shimane Prefecture, the oldest and one of the most important shrines in Japan. That one is nearly 4 meters in diameter and weighs 1,500 kilograms.

I’m glad I’m not part of the crew that has to replace it!

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