When our son was spending his first New Year’s Eve in Japan, he reported to us on the local celebrations of this most important holiday.
While we at home in the U.S. are staying up late to eat and drink, dance, and generally whoop it up with family, friends, and total strangers, in Japan the courtyards of shrines and temples are slowly filling with hundreds, even thousands, of patient, silent people waiting to make hatsumode—the first visit of the New Year.
On the stroke of midnight, all over the country, the doors open, and the temple bells begin to ring. And they ring for a total of one hundred eight times, representing the 108 sins (such as vanity, garrulity, prejudice, ingratitude, and unruliness) from which humankind must be freed before achieving nirvana. It’s part of a longer turning-of-the-year celebration during which people visit family, pay debts, eat special symbolic foods, and exchange gifts. (Although it seems that in Japan EVERY event—first trip to the dentist?—is an opportunity to exchange gifts.) What a contrast to Times Square, and beyond, where people are probably racking up those 108 sins right and left.
This is a sketch of a temple courtyard (but not on New Year’s Eve) from one of my Japan sketchbooks.