New Year Celebration I
(I have posted three entries in reverse order, hoping it will be easy to read them starting with no. I. If you see no. III first, please read them in reverse order.)
I had some very satisfying experiences during this holiday season. On New Year's eve, I went to the temple Enyuji for the 108 bell strikes. It is pretty common for temples to ring their bells 108 times on the last night of the year (it is called Joya no Kane in Japanese), but they have various ways of carrying it out. At Enyuji, they hand out 108 tickets to the first 108 individuals or groups (up to four people with one ticket). I put on my kimono (Oshima tsumugi) and hakama and headed over to the temple a bit before 10:00 PM, since the tickets would be handed out starting at 10:30. I splurged on a taxi to get there (walking would be nearly 30 minutes) and when I got there, the line was already pretty long. Of course, there was no way to tell how many groups--there were lots of families there, with kids running around and so on. But after waiting 20 minutes or so the line started moving quickly and I got my ticket.
It was fairly chilly--in the low 40s or high 30s F. So, I put lots of heat packs (those sand-filled things that heat up through slow oxidation) on my legs and back. I wore very thick underwear--top and bottom--giving a very filled-out look to my kimono. I also wore a thick woolen coat, called 'manto' a word borrowed from French. Because it doesn't have sleeves, it works well with a kimono. In place of sleeves, there is a kind of cape-thing over the shoulders. It buttons up snugly to the neck, and the material is like melton, so it is pretty warm. But it is easy to get cold just standing around. The bell ringing was supposed to start at 11:30 so I had some more time to kill. I just walked around the temple grounds and took lots of pictures. The temple buildings were still closed, and they are not heated anyway. Finally, the priest, Oka-san, came out and did the first ring. He remained standing in the bell tower the whole time, and he was just wearing his normal priest outfit with no overcoat of any kind. Maybe he was using heat packs too. There were at least three assistants for the bell ringing--probably lay volunteers. One guy took the ticket, and he was also available to take a picture for those who brought cameras. Another guy did miscellaneous work like checking the bell after each ring. Another assistant was holding the back of the log-like ringer, adding power and control for those that needed it. I took a few pix of people ringing, and then I got in line. When it was my turn, one of the assistants held my coat and another one took my picture. The standard way to ring the bell is to pull the ringer back once lightly, then back a bit more strongly on the second swing. On the third swing, pull back hard and BONNGGG! Every person then received a gift from the temple. This year and last year, the gift was a set of large, colorful chopsticks for cooking or serving. I have gotten chopsticks from other temples at New Year's, so maybe there is some tradition about this.
After my ring, I heard the 12:00 bells pealing from a nearby Catholic church. They just did one riff right at midnight. The temple bell gonged about once every minute or two, so it took probably an hour and a half or two hours. I didn't stick around long after I finished, but I decided to walk home. I went past the Catholic (Salesian, actually) church, which was having midnight mass that night. Also, that church is famous as the location of the wedding of Seiko Matsuda, a very famous pop singer.
About halfway home, I passed through Himonya Park, which has a big pond in the middle. I remembered that there is a shrine of the goddess Benzaiten (often shortened to Benten) on an island in the middle of the pond. Her shrines are often on islands (or hills). She is the goddess of performing arts--she is often portrayed playing the biwa. I crossed the arched bridge to the tiny island, then tossed a coin in the box, rattled the shaker/bell, clapped and bowed. Then, someone gave me an ofuda, a small sacred board. It had the name of the shrine, nothing that it was a branch of the famous Itsukushima shrine in Hiroshima. Someone had prepared cups of amazake, a sweet hot drink made from sake lees. A few people were standing around a small fire in a can. As I sipped my warming drink, I could still hear the bell of Enyuji.