Home Culture Hatsumode – A First Visit to Tsubaki Shrine

Hatsumode – A First Visit to Tsubaki Shrine

Photos & text by David Yamaguchi,
The North American Post

One theme running through these pages of late has been that we should escape the lingering indoor COVID-19 particles by venturing out and see more of what is here in our own backyards. To this end, on New Year’s Day, I visited the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, near the town of Granite Falls in Snohomish County.

The timing was appropriate because New Year’s Day in Japan is a day that many spend visiting montane Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The activity is termed “Hatsumode.” As one’s first visit of the year, it is a time both to pay respects and to pray for good fortune across the year.

That such shrines and temples exist in the Pacific Northwest makes sense because the foothill landscapes and vegetation here resemble those of Japan. Moreover, we have the Japanese expatriate populations to support such facilities. Of these, the most impressive local rural shrine is Tsubaki Shrine of America. It is named after Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture, Japan, west of Nagoya, which dates from Japanese prehistory.

As background, my visit was as that of a student of Japanese culture and landscape architecture. It was thus an educational and spiritual journey rather than a religious pilgrimage.

At Tsubaki USA, one can see all of the accoutrements of a shrine in a far more realistic setting than one might otherwise find in contemporary Japanese American settings, now three-plus generations removed from its immigrants of 100-120 years ago.

Scenes from Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, which adjoins the Pilchuck River, Jan. 1. Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto dances below at second left. It was her enchanting performance that drew the sun goddess Amaterasu from her cave, restoring light to the world in Japanese mythology (“The Caves of Amaterasu,” napost.com, Dec. 15, 2022; tsubaki.org).
Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, 37720 Crooked Mile Rd., Granite Falls, Washington 98252, 60-691-6389.

The great gates demarcate a landscape of the gods from the human world. The massive straw ropes similarly mark sacred Japanese spaces. Tsubaki Shrine is Shinto, the multi-deity religion that prevailed in Japan before Buddhism took root on its shores during the sixth century (~AD 540-550). One sees the wooden emma boards of supplicants, leaving their private messages for the gods to read. There are the paper fortunes tied to trees, fortunes that receivers did not want to retain.

While an English sign next to the hanging emmas requests that visitors not read the private pleas of others, it was hard not to read the first line of one, in search of content for this article.

It begins, “To all my patients and their families who have passed…”
From such entreaties, it is easy to imagine how generations immemorial similarly prayed to their gods. They might have requested aid in surviving pandemics surpassing the one lurking now (such as the 735-737 smallpox epidemic that killed one-third of the Japanese population). The presence of such shrines may have uplifted the people psychologically, just as my brief visit to the foothills shrine and to the smaller Jingo-ji Temple on the way home, refreshed my city-bound soul.
Until these visits, my first to each, I questioned the value of having such rural shrines and temples here. Do enough people visit to make their presence worthwhile? Do their services to the people justify their expenses?

After my visits, I concluded that the rural shrines and temples are indeed worthwhile. They are clearly helping Japanese people far from home feel less so. Both Tsubaki America and Jingo-ji were well-attended, yet I did not run into a single person I knew. All other parties were those of expatriate Japanese.

Tsubaki Shrine, in particular, provides great Japanese cultural outreach to Americans. For us, it makes a great day-trip destination.

Finally, a Tsubaki visit helps Japanese Americans understand a bit more about their roots. This is especially true because visiting Japan in-person may be becoming a journey too far for many. It is a land removed from their lives. Few have responded to the NAP announcement of its spring Japan tour in the New Year’s issue (inquiries to david@napost.com)

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David Yamaguchi has written for the NAP since 2006, at first as a volunteer, then as a paid freelancer (2016-2020),then as a staff writer/editor (2020-2023). He is presently executive director of the Japan-America Society of the State of Washington (JASSW).