Until the early 1980s and the shopping boom, there wasn’t much to do in Japan on New Year’s Day. Though people had always gone to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines to pray for good luck in the coming year, for the most part the custom of hatsumode is built on boredom and habit, and shrines and temples have taken full advantage through advertising and public relations. The most popular destination is and always has been Meiji Shrine in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park. From Jan. 1 to 3, 2010, 3.2 million people visited Meiji Shrine to pray and put cash in the offertory box (kisha, literally “throw with joy”). After that the most popular were, in order, Narita-san Shinso Temple in Chiba (2.98 million), Kawasaki Taishi Heigen Temple (2.96 million), Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto (2.7 million) and Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka (2.6 million).
In 2008, the Kyoto Chuo Kinko Bank conducted a survey among 1,200 people about their “actions and prayers on New Year’s Day associated with economic trends.” According to the results, the average person “contributed” ¥320 to each shrine or temple he or she visited on New Years. If we take that figure at face value, it means Meiji Shrine could have hauled in as much as ¥1,024,000,000 for the first three days of the year.
And don’t forget, that’s tax free. In fact, religious organizations don’t even have to report the money they receive as contributions, which are legally defined as moneys that are given for nothing in return. This is sort of a gray area. If a temple or shrine charges for parking or sells charms on the premises then it has to report the money it takes in and pay a tax on it. However, many temples and shrines in Kyoto charge admission and call it a “contribution,” a claim that would seem to be open to dispute but never is, especially given the fact that most of the people who visit these places then make an additional “contribution” to the offertory box. Does that make sense? It’s like that ramen museum in Yokohama. You pay admission to get in and then you buy a bowl of noodles.
Non-Japanese who adhere to a particular religious doctrine may look askance at the practice of giving money for the purpose of facilitating one’s prayers for good fortune, but shrines and temples have always had an open relationship with lucre. The sando, or road that leads up to a shrine or temple, is traditionally lined with commercial establishments — just think of Tokyo’s Omote Sando, where most of the stores were open this New Years Day, offering fukubukuro (“good luck bags“). Now there’s something to pray for.