Holy Fire – New Year
One of the many ceremonies held around New Year in Japanese shinto shrines is the jouka (浄火), the holy fire. It is a ritual burning of holy items, such as the prayer slips, the votive plates, any old material related to the gods or statues, votive arrows, decorations that have been blessed etc. The ritual is called Otakiage (お焚きあげ). The basic rule is that since everything you buy at a shrine is blessed it needs to be ritually burned and never thrown away with common garbage. There is also a time limit to most of the things you buy, it should be burned within a year or so, before the holy charm is used up and ceases to be effective. This is one of the reasons you see so many Japanese shop at shrines but you never see the stuff piling up in homes and very little of it ever reaches the antique markets. At New Year’s Eve, many people bring their old charms and decorations to the shrine and leave it with the attendants who man the holy fires. I took these photos of an attendant at the Shitaya Shrine in Tokyo’s Ueno district. A young handsome man and a big roaring fire, very photogenic!
So if you ever need to throw something from a shrine away and you are too far from the shrine to go there yourself, you might consider just mailing them the thing and asking them to burn it for you! I think a lot of tourists get home with some holy trinkets in their pockets after a trip to Japan. Or you could just keep it because it is beautiful, like I do!