Here it is the first week of January 2010, and I find I’m still lingering over a last farewell to the Ox of 2009. It was after all my kanreki and a year filled with so many sad and sweet memories that it deserves a lingering stroke as I say my last good-bye.
New Year’s Eve in Japan is particularly magical night. The tradition is to pass midnight ringing the bells at a Buddhist temple or having a drink of sake at a Shinto shrine. Though a huge percentage of Kyoto residents choose Yasaka shrine in the city center, there are more than 1600 temples and shrines to choose from, each with it’s own particular variation on the midnight rituals. My own preference is a tour of the local neighborhood venues.
It was -4°C and the snow was flurrying as we set out walking around my neighborhood, so the bonfire was a particularly welcoming discovery when we entered the shrine garden. In exchange for New Year’s prayers, sake was served in wonderful little square wooden boxes. A bit difficult to drink from, but a delight on a cold winter’s night. After enjoying the warmth and comraderie around the bonfire, we moved down the street to ring the bell at the local Buddhist temple.
Mind you, it’s not just this temple, but every temple in the city rings it’s bell 108 times at midnight—a deep resonating sound of a massive bronze bell struck rhythmically to ring out the 108 delusions of human kind. The significance of 108 is derived from the six senses (the five we recognize in the west plus the mind as the organ in which the senses are perceived) multiplied by the past, present and future, but since the past also has its own past, present and future and the present has a past, present and future and the future likewise has its own past, present and future, the calculation is derived not as a simple multiplication of 6 times 3, but as six to the third power representing all of the dimensions of delusion from which we should seek to become free.
And so we lined up, each to climb up the platform and take a turn at swinging the rope that guides a large wooden clapper against the massive bronze bell.
Next on our mini temple tour, we dropped by Go Jinja, home of the giant ema. Normally ema are just small painted wooden plaques that fit in the hand. Prayers or hopes for the coming year can be written on the back and every shrine has a version that they sell for New Year’s, always fancifully decorated with the animal representing that year. Go Jinja goes a step further by decorating their garden with a giant ema that makes a great photo op, thus ensuring that the shrine will see a steady stream of Kyotoites throughout the early weeks of the New Year.
Of course, New Year’s Eve is just a beginning. Japan has a lovely custom of continuing the New Year’s celebrations throughout January. Since each time you meet a friend for the first time in the new year, it becomes a cause for yet another celebration.