A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Ringing Out the Old Year, Ringing In The New- Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘) – Japan`s New Year Bells (again)

The Bell at Hannya-Ji, dated 1275

The Bell at Hannya-Ji, dated 1275 (just off the Tsuchiura Gakuensen Road was designated a National Treasure during the war years to save it from being melted down to make ammo. After the war it was demoted to an Important Cultural Property.

The Bell at Hannya-Ji, dated 1275

By Avi Landau

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.

The Old Bell at Hanyaji Temple
The Old Bell at Hanyaji Temple


Many in Tsukuba ( where the Shingon Sect is so common) 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.

Others ( or the same people!), will be making their rounds to visit shrines and temples associated with the Seven Lucky Gods (Shichi Fukujin), a grouping which consists of mostly Chinese and Indian deities ( I will write an article focusing on this topic within the next couple of days).


Another interesting custom which came from China but can be found only in Japan today is the drinking of O-TOSO (お屠蘇), 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. On New Year`s Eve 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 have New Year’s preparations of my own to finish-  mainly cleaning!. If you need any recommendations for good temples or shrines to visit, let me know! For Joya no Kane, you could try FUMON-JI, a Shingon Temple near mount Tsukuba, or Kakuo-Ji, a Zen Temple near the Hanamuro Intersection .

I might  head out to the Gangyu-Ji Temple (願牛寺) in Ishige ( part of Joso City) where just last year ( Dec. 25th 2011) a new bell was consecrated- the first time this temple has had a bell since its last one was melted down for armamaments during WWll. If you`d like to join me, let me know.

Looking closely at its bell, you can find Hanya-Ji Temple`s name engraved in the bronze

The O-Washi Jinja Shrine in Tsukuba, Teshirogi might be a good place to welcome in the Year of the Snake- since this mysterious straw snake can always be found wrapped around its torii gate

But since we will be ushering in the Year of the Snake I will DEFINITELY make a short visit to a small but very old (some say the oldest in Tsukuba City)
shrine in Teshirogi- the O-Washi Jinja – which always has  a rustically woven STRAW SNAKE wrapped around its torii gate which is made anew each year xometime in November.
And since snakes are closely associated with BENZAITEN (one of Japan`s traditional Seven Lucky Gods), any temples or shrines dedicated to her will be popular on this new Year`s Eve ( and throughtout the first week of the year). Worshipping Benzaiten is believed to benificial to your financial status and also for improving your skills in the arts.

An old photo I found at the Fumon-Ji Temple (普門寺) in Tsukuba, Kango-ri showing all the bell a collection of old bells which were later melted down to make armaments during the Second World War

One Comment

  • ginni-California North Coast says:

    Oh How I Wish I Could Be There for Joya No Kane!!! Such a Beautiful Bell & a deeply spiritual experience it must be! Will you ring it once for me? I am making by hand a Buddhist Temple Bell by the traditional lost-wax casting method – about 8″ high, and nearly as beautiful is as this one! [ha] Wish for it to ring deeply, long into silence… Best Wishes for a Great New Year! very fondly to all of you! ginni. California North Coast – Otsuchi Sister City