Ringing in the New Year the Japanese-Buddhist Way

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New Year’s is a huge festivity in Japan, larger than any other holiday observed there. After my first experience in 2008, I couldn’t help thinking that it was Christmas and Thanksgiving in the U.S. all rolled into one three-day festivity. Japanese New Year, or shogatsu, inherits much of Chinese tradition, but is fixed to the Western solar calendar, and has evolved into a holiday that is uniquely Japanese.
On the night of New Year’s Eve, many Japanese flock to Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples, perhaps one of the few times they might visit the whole year, to ring the huge hanging bell on the premises. In Buddhism at least, this is called joya-no-kane, and according to tradition, the bell is to be rung 108 times to reflect the ignorance and various defilements of the mind, which one learns to overcome lifetime after lifetime. At neighborhood Buddhist temples, people gather for a brief service, then line up at the temple bell, so that each person can ring at least once to bring the total to 108. This is usually done leading up to midnight, but in my experience it may spillover a little. One can often enjoy a small cup of warm amazake or sweet rice wine to drink afterwards, though the drink is actually made from the rice leftovers and contains no alcohol.
For me, hearing the somber, slow ringing of the bell reminded me how all things fade: pretty girls, good food, fun times, etc. The sound was sobering and renewed my zeal to put the path into practice.
If New Year’s Eve is solemn, New Year’s Day is something else entirely. New Year’s Day is festive and joyous as people look forward to a new year and new opportunities for success. But this goes double if you’re a small child, because you can expect plenty of small envelopes from relatives and friends called otoshidama. My little girl, maybe two years old at the time, came away with quite a haul of envelopes and money being the only granddaughter of that generation and had no trouble buying some extra toys afterwards.
But for the adults, they too can enjoy the special New Year’s food, or osechi-ryori, and make a leisurely trip to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine once more. Instead of ringing the bell, people flock to pray for good luck in the coming year. This tradition, the first visit of the year, is appropriately called hatsumode and is a great family event. In 2008, my wife’s family, daughter and I all made our way to a certain well-known Buddhist temple in the city. The roadway leading to the temple entrance was literally packed shoulder to shoulder with people shuffling as a herd! The weather was pleasant for a winter’s day and with our prayers completed, we strolled to a nearby noodle shop for some warm food and good conversation. My little girl loved being on Daddy’s shoulder for the whole trip, and we all enjoyed spending time as a family together on the outing.
Unlike the New Year’s traditions I grew up with in the U.S., I found the traditions in Japan more family-oriented and more religious in nature, even if people are just praying for good luck. As you are reading this, I am on my New Year’s trip to Japan and wish all readers a joyous and spiritual New Year’s!

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