I’ve heard a lot and have spoken to a lot of people about the New Year’s traditions. There were so many small pieces that lead up to the evening itself that I decided to focus on two of the biggest and give them a go: Joya no Kane (New Year’s Bell) and Hatsumode (First Temple or Shrine Visit of the Year), with just a pinch of Shishi-mai (Lion Dance) for flavor!
Joya no Kane (New Year’s Bell)
My first goal of the evening was to experience the Joya no Kane, or the New Year’s Bell. This happens at most temples and shrines all over Japan. They ring their bells 108 times, symbolic of the 108 earthly desires from Buddhism, in order to leave them in the past and usher in a new, fresh start to the year. The 108th bell tolls at midnight, with most temples and shrines starting the bell tolls around 11 PM. Now, not all temples and shrines do it like this.
After heading out at 11:30, I passed a small temple on the way to the much larger Kita-in Temple. Inside, we saw people lined up to give the bell a ring. Later, after midnight on the way home, I stopped by another temple and they had a similar setup: You gave your donation and the priest would help you wind up the large battering ram and you sent it smashing into the bell. Everyone who rang it looked immensely satisfied.
People will line up on New Year’s Eve to be the first people to offer their New Year’s wishes. It’s essentially praying for good fortune in the New Year. When I arrived at Kita-in, it was a festival-like atmosphere: food vendors, gifts, charms, and trinkets were all being sold in a lively atmosphere. It was frigid, so the hot foods were selling especially fast. I went towards the front of the line with my friends, waiting for a countdown of sorts. Everyone fell very quiet, glowing screen popping in and out of sight as people checked the time. Over the loudspeaker, a monk or official gave a quick word and then it was the New Year. It seemed rather anticlimactic, but the crowd sprang to life. The throng of people surged forward, and with great efficiency, they exited. Those were some of the fastest prayers I’ve ever seen! Immediately after leaving the line to give prayers, they jumped next door to the Omikuji booth, or fortune telling, to get their first fortunes of the year. From one line to another. If nothing else, the Japanese are very patient and expect queues.
Hatsumode (First Temple or Shrine Visit of the Year)
If you’re not crazy enough to line up for an hour to offer prayers direclty at 12 AM, you can do what most people do and visit the next day. Shrines and temples get many visitors, some of which, such as Hikawa Shrine in Kawagoe, require you to fill out reservation slips before you enter so they can more quickly process you. The gist is the same: ring a bell (Shinto shrine), offer some coins, wish for a good year. I saw many more families and elderly out during the day, versus the relatively young and excitable midnight crowd. The smaller local shrines and temples are also much more preferable to visit, in my opinion, as you can get in and out quickly and the relatively smaller number of people gives it a much more intimate feeling.
Shishi-mai (Lion Dance)
One thing my wife and I saw on our way around town was a small musical troupe, complete with performers. They went from door to door performing a small routine, collecting money from the homes and businesses. The old man would dance and wave around a hammer, while the lion would bat its eyes and open its mouth. This is known as Shishi-mai, or Lion Dance (not to be confused with Dragon Dance). The lion is supposed to drive away bad luck for the year and is a deeply ingrained part of Japanese culture. We followed them for about three performances before their path and ours diverged. Before they left, I had a brief opportunity to film the last part of their dance, where the dragon gave way to the old man:
There are so many more traditions out there for New Years and I look forward to experiencing them in my own way next year!