Happy new year, everyone!
This was my second New Year’s Eve in Japan. Last year I went to see buddhist monks at Chion-in ring the largest bell in Japan 108 times, but mostly spent the evening waiting in queue. So, this year I decided to mix things up. I had read that at Kurodani temple mostly locals celebrate and visitors would be allowed to ring the big bell. That sounded pretty exciting to me!
I started out fairly early, as I wanted to make sure to be at the beginning of the queue this time. Most of the way, I walked along a pretty little canal. The streets were mostly deserted except for groups of young people and families crossing my path to head towards Chion-in.
It turned out that I had come early enough since nearly no one was on the temple grounds, yet. A few visitors had gathered around fires to warm up. People from the temple had put up a little food stall where one could buy soba noodles and hot amazake, a sweet non-alcoholic drink made from fermented rice with a little ginger added in.
As I stood at the fire, a guy remarked on my camera, and I saw that he had the same one. We started chatting, he introduced me to his fellow travellers, and that is how I made friends with a group of sweet Australians. We all got some amazake to keep warm and spent the rest of the evening together.
At some point, we were asked to form a line as the time had come to ring the new year in. Waiting for our turn, we got a bit nervous that we would not be able to ring the bell properly. There seemed to be a bit of timing involved in getting the log to get the necessary momentum. We needn’t have worried, though, as when our turn came, we were able to make the bell really ring.
After that, we went into the main hall to kneel on tatami mats for a bit, and listen to the monks chanting and drumming. While we were kneeling the new year arrived in silence. The hall had been reasonably warm so when we came out into the night again it felt freezing. Luckily, there are vending machines on every corner, and we got some hot tea to warm us up. If I ever leave Japan again, I will miss those machines, those hallmarks of civilization.
It is customary to visit a Shinto shrine on the first day of the year and many do it directly after midnight. We were heading to nearby Heian shrine when it started to rain. We found shelter under the main gate. Boy, was it crowded. A queue had formed in the courtyard for the shrine, out in the open. For a while we stood there in the cold, having brought no umbrellas, not really sure whether to queue up in the rain. But then, in this rain what else could we do except wait? Luckily, eventually the rain mostly stopped, and we got the chance to donate some coins and send our prayers on their way.
On the way back I took the train. A bunch of teenagers were impressed when the crowded car rocked and I was able to support myself, by holding onto the ceiling.