People line up to pray at Otori shrine. Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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Raking in good luck at the Asakusa Tori-no-Ichi

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By Vicki L Beyer

There are numerous delightful traditions in Japan for securing good luck or warding off back luck. Many are meant to be observed especially at nenmatsu-nenshi (yearend/New Year's). Even as early as November, traditionalists are already beginning to take measures to ensure good luck in the coming year.

Every year, on each day in November that is -- according to the traditional calendar (aka Chinese zodiac) -- a day of the rooster (tori no hi), an open air market known as "Tori-no-Ichi" is held at Asakusa's Otori Shrine. The market dates back to 1630 and originated at Chokokuji temple next door to the shrine. It is said to have taken place every year since its inception without a break -- even in times of war and natural disaster. The late 17th century poet Kikaku (a student of Matsuo Basho) wrote: "Tori no Ichi is the first important event to bring in the new year".

Unusually, in 2018, November has three rooster days: the 1st, 13th and 25th, giving shoppers (and sightseers) three opportunities to visit the market and possibly make a purchase.

The main items for sale at the Tori-no-Ichi are elaborately decorated bamboo rakes, symbols of raking in fortune or luck. The rakes, known in Japanese as kumade (bear claws), have been hand-crafted in small local workshops throughout the year, just for sale in this season.

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A man returns an old rake for disposal. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

It is believed that buying one of these rakes will bring fortune/wealth in the coming year. It is also believed that a used rake should be returned to the shrine at the end of the year (to be disposed of properly by shrine personnel) and an even bigger rake should be purchased to bring in even more fortune/wealth in the next year. Talk about planned obsolescence!

Before making a purchase, many people stop to pray at the shrine itself, thanking the gods for the past year's fortune and requesting more. Needless to say, the line to the shrine itself can get quite long, in the evenings often extending beyond the torii shrine gate.

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An acolyte blesses the waiting crowd. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

An acolyte standing on a dais near the torii waves a white pom-pom, blessing and purifying visitors as they pass through the gate.

Some 300 stalls are set up in a neat grid pattern on the Otori Shine grounds, making it easy to wander through and comparison shop. Each stall has its own distinctive offerings.

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A treasure boat laden with lucky symbols Photo: VICKI L BEYER

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So many items to choose from Photo: VICKI L BEYER

In addition to rakes, elaborately decorated treasure ships and other symbol of luck are also on sale. Presumably the shrine's priests bless everything before the market opens.

The rakes come in various sizes from the size of a child's hand to nearly the size of a person. And they are decorated with a wide array of traditional lucky symbols. Look closely and you will see maneki neko lucky cats, the seven lucky gods (with and without their treasure ship), okame (oval-faced lucky woman) masks, daruma, arrows, lucky mallets, gold coins, miniature barrels of sake and bales of rice, heads of rice, pine and bamboo branches and plum blossoms (preferably red and white in color), images of sea bream, turtle and crane figurines. Just about any lucky symbol encountered in any other context is likely to be found here adorning a rake.

Shoppers have literally thousands of choices. Presumably most people select an item that contains the images most talismanic for them and their aspirations for the coming year.

Needless to say, the larger and more elaborate the item, the more expensive it is, sometimes running to tens of thousands of yen. At the lower end of the scale, a minimalist can find a small, simple kakkome rake, decorated only with a head of rice -- these, too, are a lucky charm.

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A man carries his newly purchased rake. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Reflecting the one-of-a-kind nature of any hand-crafted item, some rakes or other lucky items are decorated on a theme. For instance, one tableau I saw included Hokusai's famous wave image as its backdrop, with the lucky god Hotei positioned on a surfboard just in front of it. There was also a rake covered with ukioe kabuki actor faces.

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Vendors perform the clapping ceremony "tejime" to congratulate a new buyer. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Whenever a purchase is made, several vendors gather to perform tejime, a clapping ceremony symbolizing a deal having been struck. In the case of buying a rake, think of it as a ritual that activates the luck in the rake. The rhythm used is what is known as Edo-style sanbon-jime, three repetitions of the rhythm 3-3-3-1. It's easy to imagine this ceremony performed over a bamboo rake held by an excited buyer back in 1630. Other than the addition of a few plastic baubles, probably not much else has changed.

Outdoor markets seem always to have a festive atmosphere that causes people to want to linger. To aid that whim, on the side streets around the shrine, other vendors offer the various fair foods one expects on these occasions: yakitori, okonomiyaki, yakisoba, fried chicken, baked potatoes, steam buns, roasted chestnuts, candied apples, chocolate covered bananas, et cetera. Some vendors have put out tables and chairs so that diners can relax and enjoy a drink with their food.

While the Tori-no-Ichi at Otori Shrine is the most well-known place to buy a kumade, they are available at other locations as well. One vendor from Saitama that I spoke to said that he takes his unsold rakes to local markets held in December at other shrines across the region and always manages to sell his entire inventory before the year is out. I guess that assures his fortune, too.

Otori Shrine is about a 10-minute walk from either Minowa or Iriya stations on the Hibiya subway line, or a 15-minute walk from Asakusa station.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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