New Years in Japan is probably the second most important holiday after the Obon festival in summer. But unlike in the west where everyone wants to party, New Years is seen as a more relaxed holiday in Japan, a chance to stay home with family and reflect upon the past year. Lots of interesting shows are on TV for New Years Eve, from singing competitions and comedy extravaganzas to travel specials and cultural documentaries. If anything, Japanese New Years Eve is more about gathering around the kotatsu heater and watching TV while eating traditional food than it is about champagne and fireworks.
Another important part of the New Years Eve tradition is the ringing of bells at Buddhist temples. At midnight, the bells are rung 108 times - once for every form of suffering that humans are made to endure in this life. Nowadays, many popular temples will let visitors come ring their bells, often ending up with a toll count far beyond 108.
This year, I decided to try the bell ringing tradition for myself. I went to Hokoji Temple in Higashiyama, a small Buddhist complex set away from the street that many people often overlook. The bell at Hokoji is the third largest in Japan, and has quite a story behind it. Made of the swords collected by the ruler Hideyoshi, it also has connections to a long, bloody struggle between Hideyoshi's son and his rival Ieyasu Tokugawa. Additionally, the site of Hokoji was once the home of Hideyoshi's massive wooden Buddha statue that rivaled the one you can still see today in Nara.
The Hokoji bell is only rung once a year, so i jumped at the chance to be able to strike it for myself. People started lining up around 10:00 pm, and at midnight the head priest rang the first note. It was such an honor to be able to ring such a famous and massive bell! To see it for yourself, join KyoTours on our Higashiyama culture tour or the Kyoto Highlights tour.
After Hokoji, I walked over to Chishakuin Temple. There were many more people here, all lined up to ring the (much smaller) bell here. The priests were also giving out free hot amazake to visitors. This is a sweet drink made from the leftovers of the sake production process, often enjoyed by nuns in historical times. The partiuclar amazake at Chishakuin was flavored with ginger, and was a great way for visitors to warm up after a cold night outside ringing bells. In the main worship hall, the first service of the year was being held in front of a beautiful golden altar.
If Japanese New Years Eve is all about visiting a Buddhist temple, New Years Day means going to a Shinto shrine for hatsumode, your first prayer of the year. This year, I visited Yasaka Jinja Shrine in Gion, and it was packed! Many people where there to do more than just pray, as there are many activities to take part in at a shrine on New Years Day. Some were buying omamori charms to protect them for the coming year, and others were writing their wishes on ema, small wooden placards hung up on the walls of the shrine. Just about everyone was buying takoyaki, yakisoba, taiyaki, and other snacks in the festive outdoor market that overflowed into the neighboring streets.
I've had many tour guests comment recently that there are so many money souvenirs for sale in Kyoto, and there's a good reason why (and not just because of the monkey park in Arashiyama). Japan still follows the Chinese tradition of having a symbolic animal for each year, and 2016 is the Year of the Monkey! This giant ema was on display at Yasaka Jinja, and it was the centerpiece of many family pictures and selfies.
New Years is a great time to experience traditional Kyoto. Don't hesitate to arrange your vacation around a popular Japanese holiday. It can get a pretty crowded at some spots, but it gives you a chance to see a once-in-a-year side of Kyoto that most visitors don't have a chance to experience. For example, a tour on January 2nd allowed my guests and I the chance to enter the inner grounds of Toyokuni Jinja Shrine, which is rarely open to the public. There was a beautiful display of fruit, vegetables, and alcohol that was being offered to the the spirit of Hideyoshi... the very same ruler who collected the metal for the bell I rang on New Years Eve! A wonderfully rare sight only visible for a few days at New Years!
See you in Kyoto in 2016!