Chapter 9
Table of Contents
Chapter 11

Chapter 10:  Omisoka
Ringing Out the Old in Tokyo

(Note: Again, many Omisoka traditions are Buddhist, but they are entwined with Shinto traditions and they bring the festival wheel full circle back to Shogatsu,  thus it is included here.)

   Omisoka, the time leading up to the new year, is one of the most important times in Japan and also means a new start in one’s personal life. Before January 1st, the house and business are thoroughly cleaned, all that is old is thrown away and  debts, obligations and problems in relationships are all settled, cleared up and taken care of.  This idea of purification and of banishing all negativity is important according to both Shinto and Buddhist customs. To this end kadomatsu (boughs of pine, bamboo and sometimes plum) are placed at the entrance of almost every home and business as well as in beautiful smaller arrangements inside the house or apartment to bless the dwelling. Also displayed in temples, shrines and homes are charms and images that depict the animal of the new year, called the eto

     On New Year's Eve, the family often eats a special soba (buckwheat noodles) on beautiful dinner ware. Some people spend the last hours of the old year in a bath or with thousands of other people mobbing a shrine or temple, but special sake with flecks of gold-leaf in it is often consumed.

Old charms and daruma 
being burned at the end of the year.
Temple bell ready 
to be rung at Omisoka.
     One of the most interesting Omisoka  traditions that originally came from China is the the ritual moment that truly ends the old year, destroys all “sins” and announces the renewal of the world: the midnight ringing of the temple bells. At midnight on December 31st, no matter where you are in Japan, you will probably hear the joyanokane, the ringing of a temple or shrine bell 108 times as the new year is born. 

     This ritual ringing of the new year's bell  is over a thousand years old in Japan and probably far older in China. It was originally done on the “Chinese New Year,” a date in the Chinese lunar calendar when the entire cycle of the Chinese Zodiac is finished. Today we refer to this as “Buddhist New Year,” but in Japan, as with so many things, the ancient Chinese custom, Japanese traditions and things Western (in this case the calendar) have collided. Thus the bells will ring the new year in across China about one month after they do in Japan, this year it will be about February first. 

     But why are temple bells (or drums) rung 108 times? For an answer to that we have to trace the origins of Japanese Buddhism, as well as other cultural traditions, far into the past. Buddhism, various Pagan gods, mathematics and a number of other things originally came to China from India. The Goddess Benten-sama, worshipped all over Japan (and specifically at the Temple in the center of Shinabazu Pond in Ueno Park) is actually the Indian Goddess Sarasvati, Buddhist sutras and “magical language” used on sacred memorials is actually an altered form of Indian Sanskrit. The prayer beads that most Japanese Buddhists use, called juzu, are actually from India where they are called mala  or “circle”and, interestingly enough,  they always have 108 beads.

     This is not a coincidence. The juzu, what Westerners call a rosary, symbolizes the totality of the world and the circle of the heavens. In Indian astrology and religion, the circle of the visible universe was extremely important and clearly divided into twelve areas with specific meanings. Each of these zones was ruled by a constellation of the Zodiac and the passage of time was seen as a mythic journey through the influence of these twelve powers, each represented by an animal, the eto previously mentioned.This system was used to understand and mark the exact moments when such things as the new year would occur. Now, each zodiac sign “zone” was further divided into nine “digits,” much as a circle is divided into 360 degrees. Thus the totality of the heavenly round was 108 digits and this number became sacred and a symbol of the cycles of life and time in India, China and, finally, Japan. 

     Buddhism adopted these ideas from Hinduism, but added a new concept; “sins” or negative actions. Some Chinese Buddhist saint came up with the tradition of there being 108 sins and 108 beneficial acts to match the 108-digit circle of the universe. Since New Years Eve was the moment when all the past sins should be done away with, with the grace of Buddha, it became common to ring the temple bell 108 times. this would broadcast the power of the temple’s prayers and chants and anyone who heard this joyanokane  would be washed clean of all last years sins, ready to begin a new year. It is for this reason that it is considered very unlucky in Asia to die near the end of the year! 

     During the Edo period, it became common for some temples to open their doors and let people ring the bell or pound the sacred drum 108 times themselves, usually for a fee. In this way people gained merit and the temple gained donations! Whether you are an ardent Buddhist or just an interested tourist, you are welcome participate in this continuing tradition by going to one of many temples in the Tokyo area and pounding out the old year and all it entails. 

     A New Years Eve temple pilgrimage is a chilly but unforgettable experience. It's quite a scene when the bell begins to ring and everyone rushes inside to get the first blessings of the year. If  you want to “ring out the old” yourself, you need to plan ahead.  Usually there is a strict number of people (often about 500) allowed to participate directly in each temple’s bell ringing. A few of the most popular temples, such as Zojoji near Tokyo Tower, sell tickets for joyanokane  as early as the beginning of December, but most begin to sell tickets (or give them away for free) on a first-come, first-served basis about an hour before the midnight. It’s a good idea to get there several hours early, competition is fierce but civil, so be forewarned!  You usually will have to ring the bell as a group with four or five other people, but the bells are huge, often a meter or more tall, and its fun to get a handful of people in-sync pulling back and letting go of the large log that rings the bell. Many of these bells are very old and a few, like the one at Zojoji which dates back to the fourth Shogun Tokugawa Ietsuna, are designated as cultural treasures. 

     Afterwards, wandering from the bell tower, doubtlessly breathless and with tired arms, you may be given (or wish to buy) a house-protecting new years charm. When you finally get to sleep (many people will stay up all night to see the dawn) you might even be rewarded for your spiritual effort by either a “lucky dream” or, more likely, a hangover!

     Out with the old, in with the new!

Special sake drunk 
at a shrine (Nikko).
Chapter 9
Table of Contents
Chapter 11