Tue, Dec 30, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Shrines in Tokyo brace for millions of new year visits


Even by Tokyo standards, it's a mob scene.

Over a span of just three days, roughly 3.5 million people will crowd onto the gravel-covered paths of the Meiji Shrine and inch their way toward the altar to toss coins, offer prayers and buy charms in a tradition repeated across Japan every New Year's.

The pilgrimages, called hatsumode, or first visits, are one of Japan's most cherished customs, along with cherry blossom viewing in the spring and paying respects at the family grave during the summer, when tens of millions of Japanese return to their hometowns and the country virtually shuts down for several days.

According to the National Police Agency, 85.97 million people -- in a nation of 120 million -- are expected to make pilgrimages to local temples or shrines in the first three days of the new year.

Though made to Buddhist or Shinto altars, the pilgrimages aren't especially religious. Most Japanese have a relatively casual attitude toward their religious affiliations, and the New Year's visits are more of a chance to dress up, shop for lucky charms and socialize than they are an opportunity to pray.

"At most shrines and temples, anyone, regardless of what religion one subscribes to, can pay a visit and pray," said Masatoshi Miyano, of the Buddhist Narita Shinshoji Temple, just outside Tokyo. "I think that is why the tradition has spread among so many people."

Mainly because of its central location in downtown Tokyo, Meiji Shrine is expected to be the most crowded, with from 3 million to 3.5 million visitors, followed by Shinshoji, with an estimated 2.65 million people.

Despite the huge crowds -- and the large amounts of alcohol often consumed along the way -- the visits are generally orderly and few incidents are reported.

Even so, police in Tokyo say they will mobilize an extra 35,000 officers on crowd control duty. Officials at the Meiji Shrine -- named after Emperor Akihito's great-great-great grandfather -- said this year they will also be watching the pilgrims more closely.

"We beefed up security around our shrine after the 9/11 attacks, and we usually bolster security around New Year's because so many people visit us," said Yuji Kuwamiya, a spokesman for the sprawling shrine, which is surrounded by a forest and borders one of Tokyo's most fashionable shopping areas.

"We don't have any special security measures that were prompted merely by the terrorist fears," he added. "But we will have police, riot police, firefighters and our staff patrolling the area."

During the first three days of the New Year's, 35,000 policemen will be stationed at 1,405 shrines and temples, and 293 leisure spots, to prevent accidents, according to the agency's Web site.

The top site among non-religious, leisure spots during the three days of the new year is Tokyo Disney Resort, with 376,000 people expected to visit.

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