If you're lucky enough to be in Japan as one year transitions to the next, you’ll find no shortage of unique customs and traditions awaiting you. High on the list of fun, distinctive ways to ring in the new year is participating in the ritual of purification and renewal known as joya no kane (除夜の鐘).
Ringing in the new year in Japan from Flickr cc by Yoshikazu TAKADA
A Buddhist ceremony performed as the bridge between one year and the next, joya no kane is the ringing of a temple's bells 108 times. At many temples, the bell is rung 107 times leading up to the very end of the year, and once just as the new year begins. At others, the ringing begins as early as 10:40 pm and extends until well past midnight.
Theories as to why the bell is rung 108 times vary, but the prevailing one is that 108 is the number of human passions or worldly desires (bonnou, or 煩悩) recognized by Japanese Buddhism. These include -- but are clearly not limited to--anger, greed, hate, and jealousy. Ringing the bell 108 times purifies participants and listeners to face the coming year with a clean slate.
Ringing the temple bell from Flickr cc by Asian Art Museum
Often, monks at the temple perform the task of ringing the bell. At some temples, the bell is so large that it requires a team of over a dozen people to ring it. But at others, if you arrive early enough and are one of the first 108 people to line up, you can buy a ticket or be chosen to ring the bell once yourself.
Monks ringing bell in Kyoto from Flickr cc by Kyoto-Picture
Many people combine visiting a temple to witness joya no kane with performing hatsumode (初詣), the first temple visit of the year. Visiting a temple at the beginning of the year is an opportunity to give thanks for the year gone by, and to pray for the one to come.
Ready for joya no kane from Flickr cc by doronko
Those who visit a temple for hatsumode often perform saisen (賽銭), which is the ritual of offering a coin before praying. To perform saisen, toss a coin into the slotted wooden box in the temple. Many people prefer to throw a five-yen coin because its name in Japanese (goen, or 五円）is a homophone with the word for luck in a relationship (ご縁).
After tossing your coin, bow toward the interior of the temple, clap twice, and offer whatever prayer or thought suits you.
Performing saisen from Flickr cc by Justin C.
Hearing a temple’s bells as they ring in a new year, and joining in on the experience with others is unique. Many people find great joy in the sound of the bells, and the merely listening to the tolling is thought to bring the same purification as being in the temple itself.
Joya no Kane from Flickr cc by Kyoto-Picture
While you travel in Japan this New Year's, take the opportunity to ring a bell yourself, watch and listen from inside a temple, or just catch the faint sounds from the comfort of your hotel bed. Be sure to take a moment to enjoy what is a thoroughly Japanese way to welcome the new year.
If you are in Tokyo for this New Year's Eve, you have many options for participating in joya no kane, and even the opportunity to ring the bell. See our list below for some of the best.