The hatsumōdë jinja visit at the beginning of the new year is a firmly established tradition in contemporary Japan. Anywhere from dozens to millions of people descend on each jinja to pay their respects, receive ofuda to venerate in the new year, and provide the foundation for the jinja’s financial survival over the following year.
This presents jinja with a major problem this time. They cannot afford to simply cancel hatsumōdë, in most cases; the income is vital to paying the bills over the rest of the year. On the other hand, it does not look like we will be in a position to invite people to gather in dense crowds by the end of this year. Jinja, and prefectural Jinjachō, are already working on the problem, and a couple of weeks ago Jinja Shinpō reported on part of the strategy of Enoshima Jinja, in Kanagawa Prefecture.
The jinja anticipates that many people who would normally go to the jinja to have a ceremony performed to ask for good fortune over the coming year will request that the ceremony be performed in their absence, with the ofuda sent by post afterwards. However, if those people do this, they will not get the ofuda until some time into the new year. This kind of ceremony has to be performed in the new year, and the ofuda cannot be sent out until the ceremony has been performed, because the ofuda is presented to the kami during the ceremony. This would mean that these people would have no ofuda to venerate at new year, which is a problem from a religious perspective.
To resolve this problem, the jinja has decided to send out “yōhai gohei” to everyone who books such a ceremony, and asks for it to be performed in their absence. A gohei is two of the lightning-bolt strips of paper, attached to a wooden wand, and is a common symbol of or temporary habitation for the kami. “Yōhai” means “distant reverence”; venerating a jinja from a long way away. Thus, the idea is that the gohei will serve as a symbol of the kami, while people venerate the jinja from wherever they are.
The priests note that they are not positively encouraging people to receive their ofuda by post (this is still highly controversial in the Shinto world), but that they foresee the need under the pandemic, and want to be able to provide something to link people to the jinja at new year itself.