This annual event held at Kameidoten-jinja in Koto Ward celebrates the passing of good fortune into the year with the exchange of wooden carvings of bullfinches, a bird associated with luck (uso means Bullfinch and kae means exchange). The practice, which is said to have begun in the early 19th century, sees people bring their wooden carvings from the prior year and exchange them for new birds at the shrine. Although exchanges of the bullfinches do take place at certain other shrines, in Tokyo the exchange at Kameidoten-jinja is the most popular with over 30,000 people visiting the shrine over the two-day period (typically 24 and 25 January). The event begins at 8:30am until the evening and visitors can purchase a range of sizes of bullfinches (prices are ¥500 to ¥7,000).
Kameidoten-jinja is dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), who is worshipped as the god of learning in Japan and so many students pray for good results in their examinations at the shrine. The similarity between the traditional Chinese character for learning (學) and Bullfinch (鷽) is the reason that the exchange is popular at the shrine.
Why do people exchange Bullfinches?
The custom is actually a play on homophones. Uso means “Bullfinch” and “lie” in Japanese, and tori means “bird” and “take”. And so by “exchanging Bullfinches” you are giving back the “lies” of the past year and “taking” something new.