Saturday, December 28, 2013

Memories of Japan: Joya no Kane: Ringing of the Temple Bells at Midnight

Temple bell at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto,
a Zen Buddhist temple.
Today is Saturday, December 28, 2013.

Assuming you have cleaned your house thoroughly, made all your New Year's food and enjoyed watching the Red and White Song Contest on TV with your family, the next thing you know, it's midnight on New Years' Eve (Ōmisoka), and if there is a Buddhist temple anywhere nearby, you can hear them ringing the temple bells.  This is called joya-no-kane and it remains to this day one of my very favorite customs.  

I should stop and make sure everybody is on the same page:  although the state religion – and the original religion – of Japan is Shintō, Buddhism came to Japan from India, via China and Korea in A.D. 538. The two religions coexist more or less peacefully in Japan, and many Japanese will tell you that they are not really one or the other, although their family may prefer one over the other.  To distinguish between Buddhism and Shintō, you should know that temples are Buddhst and shrines are Shintō.  Buddhist temples tend to be plain unpainted wooden buildings, and some of the older shrines are also rather plain, but Shintō shrines also tend to have buildings that are brightly painted with a distinctive orange-red color.

Bell at Mii-dera (also known as Onjōji in Ōtsu city,
near Kyoto, one of the four largest temples
in Japan. 
There really was a man named Siddhartha Gautama in India, and it is his teachings that Buddhism is based on.  Gautama was given the spiritual title of Buddha (awakened one).  The type of Buddhism in Japan is Mahayana, and there are various sects of this type of Buddhism, notably Zen, which was originally practiced in China.  Rather than focusing on the worship of God, Buddhism provides its followers with a way of living and dealing with the problems of life, plus a way to end suffering by attaining enlightenment. Technically, then, every follower of Buddhism has as his or her goal to become just like the Buddha.

Monk ringing the bell at Jindaiji, the second-oldest
temple in Tokyo.
Shintō, by contrast, is a very old, indigenous spirituality founded in 660 B.C.  It is not a "religion," per se, but rather a mix of folklore, history and mythology.  Some of the practices that are followed today originated in the Nara and Heian Periods of Japanese history (710-794 and 794-1185, respectively).  Followers of Shintō worship kami, which can be translated into English as "spirits", "essences" or "deities."  Some kami are human-like, while others are spirits of animals, elements of nature (grass, trees, rocks, etc.) or forces such as waves, wind and lightning.  Shintō practices generally have to do with ritual purification, protection from evil, and praying for good fortune or a good rice harvest.

For most Japanese, even if the family prefers one or the other, ceremonies and rituals having to do with birth and marriage are handled by Shintō shrines, while funerals and other customs involving death are handled by Buddhist temples.  

OK, back to New Year's Eve.  At the stroke of midnight, the Buddhist temples start to ring their bells 108 times.  This practice takes hours, because various sutras are recited by the priests before each ring.  Here is a list of the 108 "defilements" of Buddhism.  These are not so much "sins" as they are behaviors that increase suffering in the world.


Abuse; aggression; ambition; anger; arrogance; baseness; blasphemy; calculation; callousness; capriciousness (unaccountable changes of mood or behavior); censoriousness (being severely critical of others); conceitedness; contempt; cruelty; cursing; debasement (of others); deceit; deception; delusion; derision; desire for fame; dipsomania (alcoholism characterized by intermittent bouts of craving); discord; disrespect; disrespectfulness (general behavior); dissatisfaction; dogmatism; dominance; eagerness for power; effrontery (insolent or impertinent behavior); egoism; enviousness; envy; excessiveness (excessive behavior); faithlessness; falseness; furtiveness; gambling; garrulity (tediously talking about trivial matters); gluttony; greed (in general); greed for money; (holding a) grudge; hard-heartedness; hatred; haughtiness; high-handedness; hostility; humiliation; hurting others; hypocrisy; ignorance; imperiousness (assuming power or authority without justification); imposture (pretending to be someone else in order to deceive); impudence; inattentiveness; indifference; ingratitude; insatiability; insidiousness; intolerance; intransigence (being unwilling or refusing to change one's views or to agree about something); irresponsibility; jealousy; being a know-it-all; lack of comprehension; lecherousness; lying; malignancy; manipulation; masochism; mercilessness; negativity; obsession; obstinacy; oppression; ostentatiousness; pessimism; prejudice; presumption; pretense; pride; prodigality (spending money or using resources freely and recklessly); quarrelsomeness; rage; rapacity (being aggressively greedy or grasping); ridicule; sadism; sarcasm; seducement (seduction of others); self-denial; self-hatred; sexual lust; shamelessness; stinginess; stubbornness; torment; tyranny; unkindness; unruliness; unyielding; vanity; vindictiveness; violence; violent temper; voluptuousness;  and wrath.

Whew!  And you thought your church had a long list!  Forget it!  The Buddhists have everybody else beat, six ways from Sunday.   I really liked the thought that each time the bell was rung, one of our "defilements" was being washed away so that we could start fresh in the New Year.  

Typical freestanding housing for a temple bell.
There are a number of temples both large and small where the public is invited to help the priests ring the bells, usually for a small fee, anywhere from 10 yen to 500 yen per person. In many temples, you have to go ahead of time and "reserve" a spot.  Other temples don't take reservations, so you have to be there by 11:45 at the latest for the start of the service.   The priests generally start chanting at 11:45.  If a bell is rung once every 2 minutes, which is pretty fast, it still takes at least 3 to 4 hours for the whole exercise, and if you are required to be there by 11:45 at the latest, that means you may not be done until nearly 4 a.m.   Or later, depending on the temple.   Obviously, if you decide to go to a temple on New Year's Eve, you will not be able to sit around at home and watch the Red and White Song Contest.  Or, you might be able to watch the first part of it, but then you have to get going, because the trains will be pretty crowded.

I believe that any type or size of bell may be rung, but the temple bells in Japan are especially amazing. Called bonshō, they are huge, made of brass, and suspended from the ceiling on ropes.  Some are 6 to 12 feet in height.  The largest weights 70 tons.  Bells are housed in a separate structure on the temple grounds, and in order to ring them, there is a large log, also suspended from the ceiling on ropes, that works like a battering ram.  The log has a protective cover on the end that strikes the bell, and you can swing it from ropes that drop to the ground.  The bells have the deepest, most beautiful sound, and the vibrations can be felt at close range.  With the emphasis on purification at the new year, the sound of the bells has always been a very "clean" sound for me.   Because the tone of the bells is so low, the sound carries, and can be heard up to 20 miles away on a clear day.  That means that if you live anywhere near a temple, all you have to do is open your window to hear them clearly on New Year's Eve.
It's sometimes hard to understand just how large these
bells are, but this picture gives a pretty good idea.
Normally, the bells are rung in the morning and in the evening, usually 18 or 36 times, and on New Year's Eve, 108 times.  Some of these bells were made in the Nara Period (710-794) but during the Meiji Restoration, when the political power of the shōguns was broken and power returned to the Emperor, there was an anti-Buddhist period in which some 40,000 bells were melted down between 1868 and 1871.  (This was when Shintō was declared the state "religion.")  Metal shortages during World War II also contributed to the demise of some temple bells.  

As you can see, it takes several people to ring the temple bell at
Chion-in Temple. This is the largest temple bell in Japan.

The biggest temple bell in Japan is at Chion-in Temple in Kyoto.  The bell was made in 1636 and weighs 70 tons.  It is 3.3 meters (nearly 11 feet) tall.   The oldest temple bell in Japan is at Myōshinji Temple in Kyoto, made in the year 698.


One of my prized possessions from Japan,
a Kamakura-bori box.

Kamakura-bori bowl and tray

I no longer remember the name of the small Buddhist temple I went to in Kamakura with friends one New Year's Eve.  We stayed in a ryōkan (family-owned inn) and roamed the main street on New Year's Eve until it was time to show up at the temple.  All the stores were open, and we knew the young people were having a bonfire on the beach along the coast of Sagami Bay.  We bought daruma dolls with no eyes, so that we could make a New Year's resolution and paint in one eye with black ink, then save the doll until the resolution was accomplished, after which we could paint the other eye in. 

Daruma dolls for sale in all sizes.
 Kamakura has a lot of shops that sell wooden bowls and utensils called Kamakura-bori.  Made with light balsa wood, the bowls, trays, rice spatulas, decorative boxes and other items are carved, then painted with layers of red and black lacquer.  They are stunning, but incredibly expensive, so I was only able to afford a couple of pieces while I was in Japan, and not all at once! 

Someone's collection of omamori (good luck charms) from
various temples and shrines in Japan.


Japanese temples have fires going, and there is a sand pit where incense sticks can be burned.  (You buy the sticks in a little gift shop.)  You wave the smoke from the incense sticks to your head if you want to be smart, to your heart if you want a boyfriend or girlfriend, or maybe to your private parts if you want to have a baby.  Various temples also sell good luck charms and amulets of various types, called omamori.  Each temple sells something unique.  I bought two sweet-smelling brocade pouches filled with some kind of incense that still smells great over 30 years later.  I also bought a little rock that had been delicately painted with a smiling face, and a couple of assorted key chains with good-luck charms attached, encased in clear plastic.  (I was told not to open the plastic envelope, as the actual charm was a small, folded piece of paper, inside the brocade cover, on which a priest had written some blessing.)   

Large sticks of burning incense at a temple

You stand near the incense burner and wave the smoke
where you want it to go.
 Our place in line to ring the bell was somewhere in the middle, like 43 or 52, and we didn't start ringing until about 3 a.m.  The priests had to sing some sort of chant, then we were told when to ring the bell.  There were about five of us. We all grabbed part of the rope and gave the hammer/log a test swing.  Then we counted 1...2...3 and hit the bell hard.  The sound nearly knocked us off our feet.  Chills went up my back as the bell reverberated for at least a minute afterward.

Here is a really great little animation that shows how the temple bell is rung, and allows you to hear what temple bells sound like, in general.  Some bells have an even deeper sound than this.  (Be sure to turn your sound on!)

My little collection of temple bells, to remind me of
the sound of Joya no Kane
 Once back at the ryōkan, we took our bath and gratefully settled down in our futon beds, which were all laid out for us before our return.   In the morning, the housewife shouted "Happy New Year" to us and told us that breakfast was ready.  I shouted "Happy New Year" back and told them we would be down shortly.  :-)

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