The quiet and secluded Sarutahiko Shinto shrine stands in front of the Fujisaki Bus Terminal in Fukuoka City’s Sawara Ward. It’s usually empty of parishioners or visitors, but on a few days out of the year it’s the destination of a lively crowd. The first of those days is known as Hatsukoshin, and comes early in the new year.
It is a moveable festival day, and next year it will be on Wednesday, January 5. At five a.m., well before dawn, people will ring the shrine grounds to wait for the office to open. They’re lining up to buy the lucky charm that will go on sale that day—a monkey mask.
Sarutahiko, the enshrined deity, was the divinity of legend that guided Ninigi no Mikoto to earth to pacify Japan on the instructions of Amaterasu. Since then, he has been known as the divinity of roads, travelers, and guidance. The word monkey in Japanese is saru, which is a homonym for saru, or the verb to depart. From that association, Hakatans have long hung monkey masks on their front doors so that fires and thefts will depart. Walking through old Hakata, you’ll see monkey masks hung as a decoration next to the residential nameplates on which are written the duties performed by the residents in the Hakata Gion Yamakasa.
The masks are made individually by hand, and if you look carefully you can detect subtle differences of expression. The old masks are replaced by new masks every year, and there are slight changes in design. Some mask aficionados display all the masks from years gone by. There are monkey-themed decorations in several locations on the shrine grounds, and on the day of the Hatsukoshin, the monkeys are adorned with red tenugui towels as head coverings. The shrine also sells the saru-ame confection only on this day. It resembles the familiar Kintaro-ame with a monkey face instead of the Kintaro character.
In a take-off on the well-known Japanese proverb, “Even monkeys fall from trees” (i.e., even experts sometimes make a mistake), many students have begun buying the masks in the hope of passing their examinations. They hope to become monkeys who do not fall from the trees. It’s all worth getting up early for on January 5.
The shrine office opens at 5:30 a.m. and closes at 7:00 p.m., but be sure to get there early before they sell out. The masks sell for 1,000 yen apiece. For inquiries, call the Momiji Hachiman-gu at (092) 821-2049. On your way back, be sure to stop by the nearby Takatori commercial district, where shops offer free tea to people on their way home from the shrine starting at 7:00 a.m.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn145, Jan. 2011)