Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu! Happy New Year to all of you! I’m still recovering a bit from the holiday – not from the late night, mind you (parent of a toddler that I am I was in bed by the usual 10pm!), but from all of the food we scarfed down at our friends’ New Year’s Day lunch. I don’t think I need to eat for at least a week!
Or maybe what I really need is a good walk around the neighborhood. You might remember my mentioning the custom of hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the year) in my last entry. Well, some people take this tradition even further and visit the shrines of the seven lucky gods of good fortune.
So who are these gods (known collectively in Japanese as the shichifukujin)? Check out the image below for an idea:
These seven deities have been popular since the Edo Period (1603-1868) and though they look like happy-go-lucky manga characters, they’re actually highly revered by the Japanese. The Gods represent a cross-section of religions, including Buddhism and Shintoism (Japan’s two main faiths).
Each God has a specialty. In the front left (reference the pic above) is Bishamon, a Buddhist deity originally hailing from India. Dressed as a fierce warrior, he is known as the god of war and protector of those in battle. Beside him is Ebisu, god of fisherman and the most popular of the gods. He aslo moonlights as a protector of crops and rice fields. Benten (or Benzaiten) is next – the only female deity of the group, she is the goddess of luck and love and a patron of the arts and entertainment (hence the Japanese mandolin in her hand). Rounding out the front row is Daikoku, another god of Indian origin who ensures a prosperous harvest. He also looks out for cooks and frequently carries a bag of rice over his shoulder. His lucky wooden mallet dispenses good fortune.
Behind Daikoku is Jurojin, with his brown scholar’s hat and white beard. A Taoist god, her presents wisdom and longevity. To his left, fanning himself with a leaf, is chubby Hotei. The only god to be based on an actual person (Chinese monk Pu-tai), he is the god of laughter, abundance and satisfaction in trade. His statue is often seen outside shop entrances. Last is Fukurokuju, god of wealth and happiness and seriously high foreheads. Check out the scroll in his hand – it supposedly contains the secret of eternal life.
Since the 17th century, pilgrimages to shrines dedicated to the Seven Gods have been extremely popular. Traditionally carried out around the New Year, these visits are often held within the same neighborhood (for example, the Tokyo neighborhood of Meguro is a popular Shichifukujin pilgrimage spot). You should always attempt to hit all seven shrines, in order to benefit from all of the prosperity the different gods bestow.