In the universe of Japanese “lucky charms,” hagoita are probably those that have strayed the furthest from their original use. As you can suspect from their shape, they used to be rackets (or to be more accurate “battledores”) for a badminton-like game called “hanetsuki”—which apparently was all the rage among members of the aristocracy back in the Nara Period (710-794). The game became more popular later (from the 14th to the early 16th century), and at that time the battledores took the shape we see today, and sometime during the civil war period they also started being used in exorcism/cleansing rituals, especially related to mosquitoes and the illnesses they carried.
From there it was a small step to become broadly accepted as talismans, especially during the Edo period when the samurai (who used the hagoita as a New Year good luck charm, especially for their daughters) mingled with the merchants and townspeople who couldn’t say no to something that brought luck. As an aside, Edo merchants loved their puns too and in the names “hagoita” and “mukuroji” (the soapberry seeds used as the game’s ball/shuttlecock), there are some hidden double meanings having to do with good luck and sickness prevention.
I guess that for some people the hagoita sold at the Toshi no Ichi (or “Year End”) markets, like the one in Sensoji Temple’s grounds in Asakusa from (Dec 17-19) retain their charmed value, but I’d safely assume that for most they’re just decoration. In the Edo period the custom of decorating them with pictures of Kabuki actors really caught on and this is how they are still made; the difference is that now the images aren’t just painted on but sort of built in 3D with fabric and cotton stuffing to make them stand out. Since nowadays Kabuki isn’t the only (or the most popular for that matter) entertainment available, it’s not unusual to find hagoita decorated with images of TV personalities, athletes or the omnipresent Kitty-chan (aka “Hello Kitty”). Prices start at 2,000 yen and go way, way up—for a regular-size hagoita that would fit a normal home, expect to fork out at least a couple of 10k notes.
Still, like most fairs, going to the Toshi no Ichi is not just about buying: it’s also for the atmosphere (not to mention the delicious street food in the many yatai or food stalls around the ones selling the hagoita). Colors, shapes, shouts, cat-calls, hand-claps, gossip and haggling (usually with a soroban or abacus) that will make you dizzy; hanten coats and hachimaki headbands à la Edo; old-craftsmen explaining the imagery on their hagoita and telling stories about Kabuki actors and geisha who frequent the market (you can still spot them by the way); and an end-of-the-year feeling that’s so characteristically old-school downtown Tokyo.