April 16, 2005
by Yusuke Shimizu; Takashi Murachi; Tomoya Kida
New Year’s Eve in Kyoto
In your country, what do you do on the day before New Year’s Day? Perhaps you have a party with your friends. Maybe you enjoy seeing fireworks, or drinking sparkling champagne. In Japan, it is nowadays popular to watch TV programs at home with family or friends. Does this sound boring? Fortunately, it has also long been the custom for many Japanese to go visit a Buddhist temple to ring the huge bronze bell. We may not visit temples every year, but most people usually go there on New Year’s Eve — especially in Kyoto.
We ring the temple bell 107 times on the night before New Year’s Day and one time on New Year’s Day itself, just past midnight. There are several theories about this custom. Let me tell you about two. One is simply that people have 108 kinds of worldly desires and can get rid of them by ringing a bell. The other theory involves the Japanese word shikuhaku（四苦八苦）which means “agony”. It so happens that many Japanese words and sounds have several possible meanings. Ku, for example, means either “troublesome” or “nine”. Shi means either “death” or “four”. So if we do multiplication tables, shi (4) times ku (9) is thirty-six, and ha (8) times ku (9) is seventy-two. Then, thirty-six plus seventy-two is 108 — the number of worldly desires! By ringing the bell that many times, we hope to rid ourselves of the whole troublesome mess!
There are 20 temples where we can ring a bell in Kyoto. I’ll introduce eight of the best.
1. Kiyomizu Temple
This temple is one of the world cultural heritages and is famous for its massive platform verandah. The structure, which is unusual compared to other temples’, is supported by hundreds of massive wooden beams. Two people ring the bell at one time. Reservations for this are accepted from the 25th of December.
Address: 294 1-chome, Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto city
2. Daigoji Temple
This temple is also registered as one of the World Cultural Heritage sites and is famous for cherry blossoms which feudal ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi (a poor farmer’s son who rose to power in 1590) used to enjoy looking at in spring. There is an impressive, vast precinct. Reservations are accepted from the 10th of December and cost 1,000 yen. Participants are welcome to drink sake or other Japanese drinks.
Address: Higashioji-cho 22, Daigo, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto city
3. Jorenge-in Temple
Located in the very calm northern area known as Ohara, this temple has a bell made by Katori Masahiko, a living national treasure. The privilege of ringing the bell will be given to the first 108 people who apply. Anybody can drink amazake, a sweet beverage made from fermented rice or sake lees, for free. And the first 108 people can also receive a thick paper on which is written one of the twelve zodiac signs; 2006 is the Year of the Dog.
By the way, during much of the year guests can even stay overnight here, which costs 7,000 yen including 2 meals. Eating shojin ryori (temple cuisine) which is made without meat or fish, costs 3,500 yen. But overnight stays are not permitted from May 28th to 30th and around August 15th (Obon) and in the period around New Year’s Day. At Jorenge-in we can experience something which we can do only in temples, like zazen or chanting a sutra.
Address: Raigoin-cho 407, Ohara, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto city
4. Seiganji Temple
Located in busy downtown district of Shinkyogoku, this temple distributes bell-ringing tickets from 11 pm on New Year’s Eve. You can enjoy sweet amazake here as well.
Address: Sanjo kudaru, Shinkyogoku-dori, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto city
5. Daikakuji Temple
The pond in this temple’s precinct is a famous spot for observing the beautifully reflected moon. There’s no restriction on ringing the bell. You can also buy talismans here.
In the middle of September, we can see a beautiful full moon from a boat. This temple is sometimes used as a location for filming period TV dramas.
Address: Osawa-cho, 4 Saga, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto city
6. Tenryuji Temple
This temple is yet another World Cultural Heritage site, and famous for its dynamic garden which “borrows” the scenery of the beautiful surrounding mountains. On New Year’s Eve the first and last strike of the bell are rung by a priest. Visitors can ring all of the others.
Address: Tenryuji, Saga, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto city
7. Manpukuji Temple
This temple was constructed in Chinese style. The bell-ringing tickets will be distributed from 11 pm. Visitors can eat buckwheat noodles which are called toshikoshi soba. * We can eat Chinese-style shojin cuisine. Moreover, there are trainings such as zazen for 1 day, 2 days and 3 days.
Address: Sanbanchi 34, Gokasho, Uji city, Kyoto Prefecture
8. Byodo-in Temple
This temple is also a World Cultural Heritage site and its style is so unique that it was chosen the model for the picture seen on Japanese 10 yen coins and on the new 10,000 yen bill. The main building of the temple is formed with symmetrical architecture. Here, on New Year’s Eve, four to five people hit the bell at one time. The ceremony ends by about 1:30 am.
Address: Renge, Uji, Uji city, Kyoto Prefecture
The Biggest Bell in Japan
Chion-in temple has the biggest bell in al af Japan. The weight is about 70 ton, and it rings with a deep and low sound. How they ring the bell is very unique. It takes 17 priests; and one of them actually hangs on the rope. Unfortunately, only priests can do that!
*Toshikoshi Soba (Buckwheat Noodles)
We usually eat buckwheat noodles on New Year’s Eve, because of some traditional beliefs:
1. Noodles are thin and long so that we hope we can live a long life.
2. Buckwheat noodles are easy to cut, so that we hope we can cut a whole year’s troubles away.
On New Year’s Eve you don’t need to worry about bus and railway transportation. They run all day long on New Year’s Eve, deep into the night, so you can go to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine to pray. We usually go to a temple to get rid of bad spirits or desires on New Year’s Eve, and go to a shrine to pray for a good future.
As we said before, we ring the bell 107 times on New Year’s Eve and once at the very beginning of New Year’s Day. We get rid of our troubles and wish for a bright future by ringing the bell 1 time on New Year’s Day. Why don’t you try it and have a GREAT YEAR!