In Japan, there are no fireworks to welcome the new year. Instead, people visit temples. I had originally planned to only go to a small local temple but my colleague invited me to visit Chion-in with him and his four year old son. Chion-in is a Buddhist temple located in Gion, one of the areas traditionally associated with Geisha. It distinguishes itself from other temples with an amazing bell. It weighs about 70 tons and on new year’s eve is hit 108 times with a huge beam operated by 17 monks. According to Buddhist tradition, each of the hits cleanses people from one of the 108 sins of humanity. The ceremony starts at 10:40 and ends around midnight with about one hit per minute. Supposedly, 30,000 people come to see this spectacle every year.
Chion-in sits on the flanks of a hill overlooking Kyoto. The best way to the temple is by going through the gates of Yasaka Shrine and then walking up the hill. We arrived in front of Yasaka Shrine by bus at around 10 o’clock. We were surrounded by crowds moving towards the shrine. We followed them on a meandering path up the hill and took in the atmosphere. Left and right the path was lined with food stalls, lit by lampions, selling grilled meats, fish, squid, corn cobs and noodles, baked octopus balls, french fries, and pancakes filled with custard or sweet beans.
We came upon Chion-in Temple. The queue for the bell started at its right-hand side, went around the temple and further up the hill. We stood in line. Slowly, slowly we proceeded. After some time we could hear the bell ringing. Minute by minute passed and we got more nervous with every hit. To make matters worse the guards had stopped allowing people into the queue shortly after us, indicating that they considered it hopeless to stand in line after that point. When we had arrived at Yasaka Shrine we had liked our chances, but the walk around the food stalls had taken longer than expected.
At the top of the hill we had to make a u-turn and walk back down, and then around the left-hand side of the temple. In the end we had completely circumvented the temple before going in. Shortly before stepping through the gates of the temple grounds, a murmur went through the crowd and midnight came.
We congratulated each other, but we could not relax, yet. We had already waited in line for about 90 min, the ceremony would soon be over, and we were still nowhere near the bell. Inside the temple grounds, we still had to make our way around an arrangement of buildings, until finally, we could make out a pavilion surrounded by trees, sheltering the bell. We took a last climb, the trees gave way to a clearing and the bell was finally revealed to us.
16 monks helped the bell’s beam to pick up momentum, while the conductor gave it the final tug with his whole body. The sound of the bell surrounded us and cleansed us of one sin. After the hit, the monks stood in a circle around the bell, bowed and left. And then I realized that we only had arrived in time to see the last hit. Only one sin lifted. I wonder which one it was.
After visiting the temple to say goodbye to the old year it is customary to go to a Shinto shrine for the first visit of the year. Happy to have seen a hit after all, we followed the crowds down another path and came upon a small shrine tucked into the hill.
A few people stood in line ahead of us, which gave me the opportunity to observe what I was supposed to do once it was my turn. My turn came, I gave a small offering (money), rattled a rattle the size of a basketball by tugging on its thick rope, put my hands together in a devout pose, made a wish and bowed. Some people would clap their hands once or twice after coming back up from the bow but I forgot to do that in the heat of the moment. It was still nice and the clapping didn’t seem a requirement anyway, as some had left it out. When I had made my wish, it started to snow. Then, we went down the hill and into the night.
P.S. My colleague was not convinced about the snow, claiming it was rain, but he obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. The stuff fell down too slowly to be rain. Also, snow is more charming and that is why I was right.