New Year’s eve at Yasaka Shrine

Perhaps one of the most traditional ways of celebrating the new year in Japan is to visit a particular shrine in the country’s cultural capital, Kyoto. The shrine is called Yasaka shrine, and it is situated between Gion and Higashiyama districts of Kyoto. Just next to the 1350 year-old shrine, there is the Chion-in temple. At this temple, a huge bronze bell is rung 108 times (scroll down to see video below) on new year’s eve to cleanse the worshipers of any evil. CNN Travel recommends that celebrating new year at this temple is one of the most traditional ways of welcoming the new year while traveling in Japan. One could say that this shrine, on new year’s eve, is to the Japanese what Times Square in New York is to the Americans. Both places have the ability to draw in massive crowds, and those crowds meant that I had to actually enter the shrine at 8.30 pm to have a good chance of getting in and not standing in an endless line (even at 8.30 there was a long queue!!).

yasaka new yr 1

(crowded entrance to Yasaka shrine on new year eve)

 

Normally, the temple is a calm and peaceful area. But come new year’s eve, this entire complex is turned into a bazaar-like establishment, with street food stalls and incense/spiritual paraphernalia stalls on both sides of the walkways.

yasaka new yr 13

(food stalls like the one above were all along the sides of the walkways)

 

After entering the Yasaka shrine at the west entrance from Shijo Dori (Shijo road), I walked all the way to Chion-in temple, which is located to the north east of Yasaka shrine. The Chion-in temple looked majestic with the lights that were turned on that evening. In Japan, shrines are places of worship for the Shinto religion and temples are places of worship for Buddhism. These two religions are the biggest and most followed religions in Japan.

yasaka new yr 3

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(Chion-in temple from the outside)

 

While standing in line, I noticed some plants inside the Chion-in complex. One of them had winter sakura (sakura = japanese for blossom) on them.

yasaka new yr 4

(winter sakura at Choin-in temple)

 

A bright shining moon with clear skies meant that there was moonlight all around, creating a wonderful atmosphere for the new year celebrations.

yasaka new yr 5

(moon shining bright)

 

As we approached the big bronze bell, we saw Buddhist monks getting ready for the bell ringing ritual. They were dressed in clothes that looked very light and thin. It made me wonder how they were able to brave the cold weather, as it was almost 0 degrees celcuis (or 32 F) and I was wrapped in three layers of warm clothes!

yasaka new yr 6

(a Buddhist monk at Chion-in temple)

 

As I finally approached the bell, there was so much crowding, that we were only allowed to stand for 2-3 minutes before the guards asked everyone to keep walking. After all, there were still thousands of people waiting in line outside to get in!! The bell would be rung 108 times, taking around 1.5 to 2 hours, starting around 10.30 pm and going all the way to 12 midnight.

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yasaka new yr 7

(ringing of the bell)

 

Before ringing the bell each time, the monks chant something, followed by a cry of “Ee hitotsu” (One more!) and “Sōre” (Now!) and then strike the bell. In spite of all the crowding, I managed to get a video of this sacred ritual. You can hear the chants and the cries of “one more” in this video. See below:

After experiencing the bell ringing, I walked back towards Yasaka shrine to discover a festival which was completely unknown to me. At the shrine was the Okera Mairi festival, an important event on the 31st of December. At this festival, the roots of the medicinal plant Okera (Atractylodes japonica) are set ablaze. Worshipers then take home the embers of the fire, taking care to keep the burning incense-like root alight till they reach home. The embers are then used to cook zoni, a special New Year’s soup containing chicken, vegetables, and rice cakes. This custom dates back to ancient times and has been designated as an intangible folk cultural asset of Kyoto.

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(This man was selling the Okera roots)

 

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(The roots have to be lit and they will burn like an incense)

 

As I walked out of the shrine around 3 am, I was amazed to see the size of the crowds of people, still offering their prayers from outside the shrine because they could not get in. I felt very lucky to have had the chance to experience this very unique new year’s celebration in Japan.

yasaka new yr 12

yasaka new yr 11

(Crowds outside the shrine)

 

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Items: New Year Celebrations at Yasaka Shrine and Chion-in temple

Price: Entry to shrine is free. ₹190 (300 yen japanese) for buying okera roots. Variable prices to various other things such as incesnes, food and fortune slips (make sure you have cash!!)

Location: 625 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 605-0073, Japan (phone: +(81)-75-561-6155)

Type: Yasaka Shrine is Shinto Shrine, Chion-in temple is a Buddhist Temple

How to get there: Take Karasuma line (read about Kyoto subway here) to Shijo station, then walk west for 20 mins. Or take Keihan line to Gion shijo station. Alternatively, take bus 100 or 206 to Gion stop

Language: Japanese speaking mostly, guards may speak broken English

Notes: Keep warm by wrapping yourself from head to toe, you will be standing continuously in the outdoors for 4 – 5 hours at least. Keep some drinking water/light snacks handy also.

Also Visit: Gion district, Heian Shrine

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