This year, Jinja Shinpō carried out a survey of its local correspondents to ask about the state of hatsumōdë, and reported the results in the 14 February issue. They did this last year as well, to find out how the pandemic was affecting smaller jinja. The particular questions this year were about whether numbers of visitors had increased, decreased, or stayed the same since last year, and since the year before last (which was before the pandemic had made it to Japan). In addition, there was a space for the priests to write in their thoughts and comments, which many people made good use of.
They received replies from 426 priests, covering a wide range of different jinja types. This includes priests who serve at many jinja, and thus do not necessarily know exactly what happened at all of them, and priests who have other jobs, who cannot be at the jinja constantly, so it seems that not all of them could answer with confidence.
That said, the results were as follows. Compared to last year, 280 reported an increase in visitors, 87 reported no change, and 55 reported a decrease. Compared to two years ago, 130 reported an increase, 119 reported no change, and 174 reported a decrease. Overall, things are clearly better than last year, but it is less clear whether things have returned to pre-pandemic conditions. At some jinja, they clearly have not, as the priests explicitly noted that they hadn’t.
Some of the variation between jinja is due to the weather. This year’s weather was good across most of the country, with some areas of Kyushu saying that it was exceptionally good. Obviously, people are more likely to walk over to the local jinja if it is nice weather for a stroll. On the other hand, there were some areas where it was unusually bad. Some places were very cold, and a priest in Yamagata Prefecture reported that “Last year people stayed away because of the pandemic, and this year numbers were down because of the heavy snow and bad weather on New Year’s Day”. Similarly, a priest in Tottori said “We suffered more from the heavy snow over New Year than from the pandemic”. The weather always has a strong influence on numbers; only the most dedicated will go if it is cold and pouring with rain, and the most dedicated are only a tiny fraction of the normal visitors.
One priest made a comment that ties in to the posts about sacred forests. “Over the turn of the year, we were constantly busy with clearing snow and dealing with trees that the snow had brought down. We used chainsaws to remove branches that looked dangerous, but we couldn’t clear everything, and it looks as though it will take until spring. We would like the Jinjachō to hold forestry courses.”
A wide-ranging survey like this brings the differences between jinja into sharp relief. One point that stood out this time was that one priest said “I have heard this from other priests as well, but midnight hatsumōdë has been getting less common recently, and people come all day on the first. The pandemic might have accelerated this trend”, while another said “The number of visitors between midnight and 1:30 am on New Year’s Day was much higher than before”. Is there a national trend? I doubt that anyone knows.
Similar differences can be seen in the reports about people’s manners. While some priests reported that everyone was wearing masks, and keeping their distance while waiting to pay their respects without even being told, others saw people without masks, or otherwise not taking precautions. Jinja also had some problems with their anti-infection measures. For example, leaving the prayer hall doors open to ventilate it meant that people got very cold, while other jinja limited the number of people per family who could enter the prayer hall and had to deal with complaints.
Other pandemic measures also caused problems. For example, switching the purification font to flowing water vastly increased the water bill at one jinja, whereas at another the water overflowed and froze, so that they had to keep chipping the ice away so that people would not slip over. Jinja also made different decisions on whether to hang the bell ropes, and got comments either way. A number of jinja also had trouble gauging the demand for omamori and such in advance, and quite a few reported running out of the New Year items much more quickly than normal.
As last year, there were different opinions on “distributed hatsumōdë”, where people come over a longer period of time. It is difficult for jinja to maintain a higher level of staff for a long period — impossible for some of the smaller ones — and while some people are coming in December for “saisaki mōdë”, at least one priest raised the question of whether the kami of the new year was there at that point.
Small jinja in rural areas faced particular problems. They are already under pressure from declining and ageing populations, and now the pandemic has meant that, for two years, they have not been able to hold some traditional events. This has an immediate practical impact, because fewer people visit the jinja and so less money comes in, but also raises potential problems for the traditions. Some of the priests are not sure that they will be able to restart them.
Overall, it is very hard to say anything general about this year’s experience. That is, however, the normal situation for Shinto.