New Year 2014

Posted on January 18, 2014 by Yoshiko Yamamoto

What is your New Year ritual? Some like to gather and party and others dare to jump into the ocean (I tried that once!) Recently I like to go to a mountain or a beach with our children. This year I was ecstatic as I was able to be in Tokyo and celebrate the beginning of a new year in a traditional Japanese way.

All over Japan at midnight on New’s Year’s eve — people both young and old —go to a nearby shrine or a temple, get in line, and wait for their turn to ring the large bell there to welcome in the New Year. At temples, townspeople ring the bell 108 times to rid themselves of bad karma.  It is a festive, communal affair, with hot sake being served along side soba noodles in a warm broth. The famous large temples make a lot of money from people coming and tossing coins in as they pray, while the the small temples and shrines have events that are organized by local neighborhood groups and are more about the community gathering together.

The one I walked to with my children was a tiny shrine that dates back several centuries near my parents home. My uncle and a band of local men and women had volunteered to set up a large bonfire and offer food and drink to the visitors. After saying hi to my uncle, we stood in line like the others, bundled up against the cold, and waited for an hour for a chance to ring the bell.

I am a skeptic at heart. So I don’t particularly believe in the 108 bad karma (no thank you!) or the religious benefit of the bell ringing. But standing there, with the other Japanese men and women, I thought: This is the way to start off the year right. I suppose it was the community aspect of this event that made me want to participate, spending time with my children, and passing down our traditions, one generation to the next.

In the early hours, after ringing the bell, we hurried home, wishing others “Happy New Years” as we passed by them. My daughter was walking half asleep and I had to pull her along by the arm. The streets were dark and quiet. But occasionally as we approached another temple or shrine, we could hear the deep slow sound of the giant gong echoing through the darkness.

But then, when the sun rose on the first of January and I woke up, the day seemed so bright, and so ordinary. The mysterious aspects of the night before seemed like a dream, or something from a movie. Getting dressed and waking up children, I felt the beautiful extraordinary ordinariness of this first day of the year.

Recently I came across a senryu (a form of haiku poem) by Issa Kobayashi. He seems to capture this feeling well.

A New Year arrives
In utter simplicity
And a deep blue sky

And so here is my wish to my friends and families: I wish all of you many days of extraordinarily ordinary happiness, simple pleasures of daily life, and a lot of blue skies.

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