Most meals are eaten with chopsticks in Japan, but the simple utensils also carry a deeper meaning.
The history of Tokyo’s Hie Shrine (日枝神社) goes back to the Kamakura period (1185-1333), when a shrine to the god Hie-no-kami was built on the grounds of what is now the imperial palace. The building was moved and destroyed a number of times in the intervening years, and the current structure in Akasaka was rebuilt after WWII fires, in 1958. But Hie Shrine is still an active shrine in the center of Tokyo, with a number of festivals and rites performed throughout the year, including the shrine’s unique chopsticks ceremony.
The chopsticks ceremony at Hie Shrine is perhaps the most unique event on the shrine’s calendar. Many Shinto shrines will accept old items as offerings to the gods, particularly omamori (お守り, lucky charms or amulets), which are purchased at shrines, and are meant to be taken back to a shrine after a year for proper disposal. At Hie Shrine, on one day of the year, they accept used chopsticks that might otherwise be thrown in the trash, and burn them as offerings in a rite to the gods.
The Shinto tradition of burning offerings isn’t the only reason for the ceremony. Traditional Japanese beliefs include the idea that once a pair of chopsticks has been used, a little piece of the diner’s soul stays with them. So if the chopsticks aren’t treated with care, it’s bad news (and maybe some serious bad luck) for whoever’s soul is stuck inside! Even if the chopsticks happened to be two twigs snapped off a tree and left in the woods, having those makeshift chopsticks get chewed up by a wild animal would be bad for the soul. So instead, there are still some who will carefully carry their used chopsticks to the Hie Shrine ceremony, to give the sticks a clean sendoff.
Hie Shrine calls their event the “Hashi Kansha Sai” (箸感謝祭), which literally means the “Chopsticks Appreciation Festival.” Other shrines sometimes have similar events, generally referred to as “hashi kuyo” (箸供養, literally “chopsticks memorial”), but they rarely reach the scale of the event held at Hie Shrine!
Wondering when the event is held every year? Well, it’s on National Chopsticks Day of course! The Chopsticks Ceremony starts at 10:30 in the morning on August 4th, which is called Chopsticks Day thanks to its Japanese pronunciation. In Japanese, August is “hachigatsu” (八月) and four can be pronounced “shi” (四). Put them together, and you have the Japanese word for chopsticks, “hashi” (箸).
So, next time you’re wondering what to do on a hot August morning in Tokyo―or next time you need to get rid of some chopsticks!―make sure you make it to the Hie Shrine, and give your chopsticks the respect they deserve.
Hoping to visit on another day? Hie Shrine holds a variety of events, but it’s also a spot where people gather for rajio taiso (radio calisthenics), which is actually fairly unusual for a shrine! Get up early and check it out.