Ringing out the Old Year, Ringing in the New
When it comes to praying for health, safety and prosperity the Japanese do not put all their chips on one hand in terms of religious tradition. This is most evident and interesting in the week or ten day period beginning with Christmas Eve, on which many (non-Christian) Japanese attend midnight masses, or other church services, or pray for family well-being, success and spiritual growth at a family Christmas dinner.
By a couple of days later, hardly a sign of Christmas will remain, as houses are cleaned, and traditional decorations are set up in preparation for the arrival, on New Year’s Eve, of ancestral spirits and the God of the New Year (Toshigami-Sama). On the night of the 31st, many Japanese will go to a Buddhist temple to hear the JOYA NO KANE, which is the temple bell tolling 108 times (symbolizing the 108 worldly desires). The bell is rung 107 times before midnight, and 1 time after the New Year has begun. The custom of ringing a bell 108 times first began in Sung Dynasty China (420-479) and crossed over to Japan with the arrival of Zen Buddhism (brought over by some of the many Chinese refugees fleeing the Mongol invasions) in the Kamakura Period (1192-1398). At that time, the Japanese Zen Temples would ring the bells every day, but later this came to be practiced only on O-Misoka (New Year’s Eve). Now, this custom is only found in Japan.
Many Japanese will also attend another type of Buddhist ritual which has its roots in ancient Indian Vedic practices. It is called the Goma-Taki fire ritual (for Hindus it is called Homa) and it was introduced to Japan by the great monk Kukai more than 1000 years ago. It is believed that this mysterious fire can bring long life, world peace, etc. (Click here for more info on Goma Taki in Tsukuba.)
Also, beginning on New Year’s Eve and continuing for the next few days, most Japanese will pay a visit to a native Shinto Shrine for Hatsu-Mode (first visit to a shrine), where they pray, buy new amulets, write wishes on votive tablets, draw their fortune etc.
Another interesting custom which came from China but can be found only in Japan today is the drinking of O-TOSO, rice wine with medicinal herbs thought to bring health and long life. If you would like to have some, just go to your local pharmacy and ask for some O-Toso-san. This is like a little herbal tea bag which you can soak in your sake. For more on TOSO see this Wikipedia article.
As you can see, the Japanese do not rely merely on their homegrown gods or traditions when it comes to guaranteeing their health, safety and success. This can make the O-Shogatsu period, with its dazzlingly high concentration of traditional customs (of various origin) extremely interesting for foreign visitors and residents. Tonight most shrines and temples will be having events and even small neighborhood shrines might be serving hot AMAZAKE (a thick, sweet non-alcoholic beverage). The bigger the shrine, the more the excitement!
There is SO MUCH MORE I’d like to write about, but I’ve got a fever, and have New Year’s preparations of my own to finish. If you need any recommendations for good temples or shrines to visit, let me know!