Ringing in the New Year in Japan

I’ve been putting off writing about our now not-so-recent trip to Japan over the holidays.  I just don’t know how anything I write could describe and capture the uniqueness and beauty of Japan.

We were there over the New Year holidays and two of the most interesting experiences we had were joya no kane, and hatsumode on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, respectively.

Joya no kane  is the traditional ringing of bells in Buddhist temples to literally ring in the New Year.  Temple bells (in different shapes and sized depending on the temple) are rung 108 times on New Year’s eve, a few minutes before midnight.  According to some sources, there are 108 earthly sins and desires that we need to get rid of, so the bells are rung 107 times during the current year, then once more at the start of the new year.

This we did at the Shitenno-ji, at Tennoji-ku in Osaka.  I think it was done a bit differently at the Shitenno-ji, because instead of monks ringing the bells 108 times, people were allowed to line up a few hours before midnight to get to the main altar, where they could offer coins, pray, then ring the bell once.  After ringing the bell once, a monk would hand each one a fortune, which should be kept or tied to a tree  depending on its contents.

This experience was unforgettable for us for several reasons.  Of course, there was the cultural significance of the event – something that we will probably never experience anywhere else – standing in line to ring in the New Year, pray, and receive a fortune.

The other experience was not so ideal.  We lined up at around 11:30pm, but didn’t get to the altar until around 2:00am.  Lining up 2 1/2 hours was not a problem, per se.  The problem was lining up outdoors, in what was probably below zero temperature!  As we waited our turn in line, we did everything to keep our hands, feet, ears, and whole body warm – we drank hot drinks (from vending machines and food stalls), and took turns standing by an indoor space heater –  to no avail.  The cold just gets under your skin and seeps into your bones.  By the time we reached the altar, I swear, the only thing I could think to pray for was warmer weather.

For hatsumode, or the first temple visit of the year, we visited a Shinto temple – the Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto.  This shrine, at the foot of a mountain, is famous for its 10,000 vermilion torii gates, donated by businessmen and manufacturers to ensure wealth and good fortune for their businesses.

Inari, traditionally the Japanese Shinto god of rice, fertility and agriculture, evolved over the years into the god of industry.  Inari shrines are easy to identify, because they are the only ones with 2 stone foxes as guardians, instead of the usual dog statues.

As expected (and warned), the Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto was packed with visitors on New Year’s Day.  Starting from inside the crowded trains from Kyoto station, a steady stream of people flooded Fushimi Inari-taisha.

We climbed up the steps to the main temple, then squeezed our way to the first set of torii gates.  Unfortunately we were pressed for time and were not able to complete the path to see the thousands of torii gates.

Though the whole compound was filled with people, the crowds were organized and there was no fear of getting our pockets picked.

We bought wooden torii-shaped charms to write our wishes on and some souvenir items, and on our way down, we sampled various delicious street foods, such as takoyaki (octopus balls), taiyaki (fish shaped cakes filled with azuki beans), beef buns, dango, and curry with rice.

All in all, it was a very memorable New Year’s experience, despite the lines, crowds and freezing cold.  Nothing beats temples in Japan, where you can pray, receive a blessing, sight-see, take beautiful pictures, and eat delicious street foods all in once place!


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