There are bad luck years in Japan. Called yakudoshi 厄年, they’re supposed to coincide with changes in one’s life that can lead to misfortune in health, finances and any number of categories. For men, the years are generally 25, 42 and 60, and for women they’re 19, 33 and 37. As I’m turning 42 in a few weeks, I thought it couldn’t hurt to get some special protection against whatever calamities might be waiting for me in the coming year.
Known as a yakubarai 厄払い, the ceremony is essentially an exorcism to ward off any bad spirits that might be hanging around and make the local kami (god) aware of your special needs in the hopes that it will offer extra protection. I had mine done at a Shinto shrine but apparently Buddhist temples can also do it. This is not surprising as shrines and temples coexisted for a thousand years and were only separated in the late 1800s to weaken Buddhism as part of the Meiji-era push towards emperor worship.
I decided to go to the biggest shrine in my town to have my yakubarai done. Ogi Mori Inari-jinja (also known as Koutou-sama) is an Inari shrine, which means it houses the god Inari, which is actually a collective of multiple gods. Inari-sama (to add the honorific) is in charge of rice and agriculture and prosperity in general. Its symbol is the fox. Inari shrines are characterized by their vermillion color and tunnels of torii (shrine gates). Although I don’t feel a great affinity for Inari-sama, I am trying to be more fiscally responsible these days. And anyway, it’s my town shrine and I’m asking for year-long protection so it makes sense to stay local.
I went on a Sunday morning. The shrine was busier than normal, what with people still doing hatsumode (first shrine or temple visit of the year) and taking care of other beginning-of-the-year business. Shinto strikes me as a very practical religion. There are no existential crises of faith; you have a problem, you go get it fixed. I like that.
This was my first time to do anything at a shrine other than stop by and pray outside so I was pretty nervous. I asked at the area where they sell protective charms and they directed me to the waiting area, which was inside the actual shrine. I took off my shoes, ascended the short flight of stairs, and I found myself inside the shrine building. Behind me was the offertory box and rope and bell, and I could hear people clapping and ringing the bell behind me as they prayed. In front of me was a raised area where a family was receiving some kind of blessing from the priest, who faced an altar with a circular mirror on it. The mirror was flanked on both sides by wooden sticks bearing lightning bolt-shaped paper streamers called shide. I sat on the carpeted floor and waited to see what would happen.
As the family finished and a pair of men, who had been waiting next to me, took their place at the altar, a man sat down behind a low table to my left and motioned me over. I told him I wanted a yakubarai because I was turning 42. He wrote my name and address down on a piece of paper and circled the number 42. I told him it was my first time in a shrine, gave him 3000 yen (around $30) for the service, and went back to wait.
A new priest entered the shrine and took my paper from the clerk, who explained that this was my first time and that I didn’t know what to do. The new priest came over to me and gave me a little primer on what was going to happen. He instructed me how to properly bow, and how to receive the sacred evergreen sakaki branch. We then ascended to the altar level.
Sake blessed by Inari-sama.
I sat seiza, or on my knees, and the priest, facing the altar and the god enshrined in the area behind us, intoned prayers. At one point I heard my name and address, I guess so the god would know who I was and where I lived. The priest also gave me a kind of running commentary between verses, letting me know when to pray, bow my head, etc. At one point he waved a wand festooned with more of the zigzag paper over my head to purify me. And then the big moment for me: he approached me and handed me the branch, which I took as instructed. I didn’t quite do it right so he had me do it again. Then I placed it on a low table in front of me and bowed low, twice, to the god, clapped twice and then bowed again, as instructed. He then said some more prayers, handed me a bottle of sake, and it was over. The ceremony took around 10 minutes.
I stood up shakily, having knelt immobile for 10 minutes, but thankfully my legs hadn’t fallen asleep. I turned around to descend from the altar level and there were quite a few groups of people waiting. Aside from the solemn atmosphere and the fact that they were sitting on the floor, it could have been any kind of waiting room. They all seemed a little surprised to see me.
As I walked back to my car, I felt significantly lighter, like the troubles and stress I had been holding onto had vanished. Rationally, I don’t really believe that Inari-sama will zap away bad spirits as they approach me or my house, like some kind of spiritual video game. But I do see the worth in participating in these kinds of ceremonies. Perhaps I’ll be more careful this year, and will think before I throw away money on something I don’t really need. But more than that, I feel like I participated in something greater than myself, and experienced a kind of awe that is largely lacking in daily life. It’s the same awe you feel standing on top of a mountain, or seeing the sunrise. It’s the awe and beauty of life and it’s why I keep going back to Shinto shrines, seeking them out.
As this isn’t science (obviously), the actual bad-luck years apparently differ around Japan. At my local shrine it was 25, 42 and 60 for men, but I’ve also seen 61 (and not 60) listed as a bad year. Also, are you counting your years the Western way i.e. zero when you’re born, or the traditional Asian way i.e. 1 when you’re born? Perhaps to combat this confusion, most shrines recommend having an exorcism done in the years before and after the bad years as well. Additionally, I was told that I should have the ceremony done before the year started and not during, which seems to run counter to the idea of having it done before, during and after. I guess if bad things start to happen I’ll head back to the shrine for a touch-up, like going to the dentist to have a cavity filled.