There are many traditions observed at New Year’s in Japan which have significance in securing a positive future: symbolic decorations, greeting cards, special dishes, garments, gifts and shrine visits, to name a few.
Once you’ve eaten all the traditional New Year’s foods you can stand, why not go for a little walk as part of another tradition, honoring the gods so that they will look after you in the coming year.
Since the Edo Period (1603-1867), a New Year’s pilgrimage to a set course of shrines and temples associated with the seven lucky gods has been regarded as a particularly good way to ensure that the year is a lucky one. The seven lucky gods are a collection of minor gods which embody the seven sources of worldly happiness: longevity, wealth, dignity, candor, generosity, amiability and popularity. They are seen in various contexts throughout the year, but tradition has it that at New Year’s, the seven lucky gods sail into port on their Takara-bune (treasure ship) bringing gifts and good fortune for all.
There are many seven lucky gods pilgrimage routes across Japan, each usually within a single neighborhood and most developed over 200 years ago. The pilgrimage is meant to be completed in the first two weeks of a new year; most take a few hours at most. The pilgrimage is commemorated by collecting stamps or inscriptions at each stop, or in some cases, by buying a figurine of the relevant god at each location.
Several of the oldest of the pilgrimage courses in the Tokyo area are listed at the end of this article, giving you plenty of options for garnering your own luck for 2014. As you make your way from site to site, often minor shrines or temples, take the time to explore a bit. These courses are usually away from popular tourist destinations, yet in fascinating historical areas.
Most of Japan’s seven “lucky” gods originated in India or China; only one was “born” in Japan. They all have histories extending back more than a thousand years. Each god has its own special ability as well as particular professions or groups they patronize.
Bishamonten is the god of war and warriors. He is derived from the Indian god Vaishravana, “the one who hears all.” Bishamonten is usually depicted wearing armor and carrying a spear in one hand and a pagoda in the other. The pagoda contains treasure that he may deem to share with those who are worthy. He also has curative powers and the power to expel evil. His messenger is the pigeon. His virtue is dignity.
Fukurokuju, whose name literally means fortune (福), happiness (禄) and longevity (寿), originated in China. He is thought to be a deification of either an advisor to 4th century Emperor Wu or a Taoist hermit of the 9th century Sung dynasty who was known for his ability to perform miracles. Indeed, Fukurokuju is said to possess the ability to bring the dead back to life. He is usually depicted bearded with a very high forehead and is often accompanied by tortoises or cranes, both symbols of long life. He carries a scroll containing all the wisdom of the world. His virtue is popularity.
Jurojin, the god of longevity, derives from Chinese Taoism. Like Fukurokuju, with whom he is often confused, he is depicted as an old man with a long white beard holding a scroll said to contain the secret to a long life. He is often pictured standing beneath a plum tree, another symbol of longevity. He is said to enjoy his wine—one way to tell him apart from Fukurokuju is that Jurojin sometimes carries a drinking vessel. Jurojin’s virtue is longevity.
Hotei, the god of happiness and contentment, is a rotund, balding fellow carrying a treasure bag that is never empty (note, his name means “cloth bag”). Chinese in origin, he is often referred to as the Laughing Buddha. It is good luck to rub his round belly. He is the god of mirth and the patron of fortunetellers and bartenders. He is often depicted with children gathered around his feet and is also regarded as a protector of children. He often draws gifts for them from his treasure bag, a bit like Santa Claus. His virtue is generosity.
Daikokuten originates from the Hindu god Mahakala and is considered by the Japanese to be the god of wealth, farmers and the kitchen. He is usually depicted standing on bales of rice, carrying a sack of treasure and a magic mallet. In Shintoism, Daikokuten is the god who provides a good harvest; Buddhism regards him as the god who puts food on the table. He is often depicted with Ebisu, who is believed to be his son. His virtue is fortune.
Ebisu, the god of commerce, fishermen and good fortune, is the only one of the seven lucky gods to be entirely Japanese in origin. He is usually depicted with a fishing pole in one hand and a large fish in the other. The fish is a red snapper, whose name in Japanese, tai, is a pun on the Japanese word for congratulations, making this fish a popular dish for special occasions. Ebisu is very popular among businesspeople, as he brings success to those who undertake commercial endeavors. There is even a Japanese brand of beer bearing his name! His virtue is candor.
Benten is the only female among the seven lucky gods. Also known as Benzaiten, she is a Japanized version of the Indian goddess Sarasvati. She is the deity of music and fine arts and is often depicted holding a biwa, or Japanese lute. She is often accompanied by snakes or dragons, her traditional messengers, and her shrines are usually surrounded by water by being placed on a small island in a pond. Benten is regarded as the patron of performers, artists, writers and gamblers. One thing to be careful about with Benten—she can be a jealous lady. Although her virtue is amiability, it is said that when a couple visit a Benten shrine together, if the goddess takes a liking to the man, she will find a way to split up the couple. Beware!
Some of the available courses in the Tokyo area are listed here, with the names of the stations nearest the start and finish. Links to maps have been included; most are in Japanese only:
• Fukagawa (Monzen-nakacho to Morishita): http://www.fukagawa-shinmei.com/7fuku/7fukumap.pdf
• Nihonbashi (Ningyocho to Shin-Nihonbashi): http://www.ningyocho.or.jp/english/walk-course/index.html
• Kyu-Yamate (Shirogane-Takanawa to Fudomae): http://www.fudou.net/shichifuku/index.html
• Tokai (Shinagawa to Omori Kaigan): http://www.city.shinagawa.tokyo.jp/hp/menu000006600/hpg000006528.htm
• Yanaka (Tabata to Ueno): http://uy7m-ssk.sakura.ne.jp/yanaka/yanaka_map.html
• Sumida River (Horikiri to Asakusa): http://www.tobu.co.jp/playing/walking/sumidagawa/map/map.pdf
• Shibamata (Keisei Takasago to Shibamata): http://www.katsushika-kanko.com/3_katsushika/shichifuku/3_11_1.html
• Ikegami: http://www.tokyuensen.com/resource/special/feature/img/hatsumoude2012/ikegami2013.pdf
• Musashino-Kichijo (begins and ends at Kichijoji): http://www.musashino-cci.biz/shichifukujin/ps/pdf/map2013.pdf© Japan Today