As my travel schedule would have it, I arrived in Kyoto, Japan 2 days before the start of 2020. In my “real life”, the one I left behind to travel the world for a year, NYE would usually consist of concerts, house parties, or trips to new countries or cities — all in the name of ringing in the new year! Now residing in Japan for the next month, the trip to a new country was taken care of but the festivities would turn out to be slightly different.
In Japanese culture, the tradition of Joya-No-Kane occurs on NYE. This tradition takes place in a Buddhist Temple and consists of ringing a bell 108 times to atone for the 108 sins in the Buddhist philosophy. My fellow travel companions and I arrived at Kenninji Temple around 11:45 pm and found this process in full swing. The line was multiple persons long and it was quite the somber and reflective occasion. While we had hoped to ring the bell, the temple decided to sell 108 tickets this year and once the tickets were sold out that was it. Upon our arrival, the 108 tickets had long been purchased. For the sake of having the experience, we watched a few people ring the bell, counted down to midnight and soaked in the experience of “ringing in” a new year in a new country. Not the least bit defeated (well, maybe a little bit), we trotted off to a whiskey bar and toasted to 2020!
New Year’s Day is also a time for keeping Japanese tradition. On this first day of the year, the Japanese visit a Shinto Shrine (Side note: Japanese practice Buddhism, Shintoism, and in some instances Christianity) for the tradition known as Hatsumode, or the first shrine visit of the year. It is here, and on this day, that they pray for health, luck, and prosperity in the New Year. I was determined to witness and be a part of this tradition.
But it turns out, I would first have to conquer the Kyoto bus system!
Excited to witness and learn about this new culture, I embarked on my journey to a notable Shinto Shrine via the Kyoto bus system. The interesting thing about the buses in Kyoto is that the times are somewhat of a suggestion versus a definite. And like most bus routes, a transfer was required to reach my final destination. And to make matters more interesting, there was the language factor, the added element of making sure you got on the right bus and then making sure that bus was going in the right direction, in a city where you don’t yet know the directions! Whew! Let’s just say, it wasn’t my best day. *sigh* When it was all said and done, I took a total of 3 buses over the course of 2 hours before I finally arrived at the Shimogamo-Jinja Shrine. However, the bustling activity and anticipation that met me upon arrival made the 2-hour journey worthwhile.
Once inside the shrine, many, myself included, opted to draw an Omikuji, or fortune paper. To obtain your fortune, you shake a numbered wooden stick out of a vessel, show the shrine attendant your numbered stick, and they will then provide you with your corresponding fortune. Take a look below for my 2020 “fortune”. Good thing my fortune says I’m “good to depart” in the section of “Travel” — especially since I still have 6 months left on my journey!
Another ritual I witnessed was the order of the Shinto Prayer. Before praying, one must first purify their hands and mouth by washing them in an ablution (i.e., washing) fountain. Afterward, the prayer follows this order:
1. Throw change into the collection box.
2. Ring the bell to awaken the deity and signal your presence.
3. Bow twice.
4. Clap twice.
6. Bow again.
Check out my video to view the entire process. BE SURE THE CLOSED CAPTIONS/SUBTITLES ARE ON!
Like any holiday, the festivities of the day wouldn’t be complete without food — soooo much food. After visiting the main area of the shrine, you were met with food stalls equipped with common Japanese eats: soba noodles (which are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day), amazake (a fermented rice drink) okonomiyaki (Japanese savory cabbage pancake), and fried chicken pieces (Yep, that’s popular in Japan!).
NYE 2019 and New Year’s Day 2020 were two very new and different experiences for me. There were no glittery, sequined outfits this year. No champagne toasts. No fireworks. And no dancing the night away until my feet hurt. And yet, I feel it was just the NYE and New Year’s Day I needed. My hope is that 2020 will be filled with more cultural excursions, delicious eats, and “somewhat lucky fortunes” that come true — but I’ll pass on more transportation fails.