New Year’s in Japan s called “O-Shougatsu”. It’s a family-centered event, such as Christmas or Hanukkah. During this time, the buzzing city of Tokyo is much quieter than usual. However, temples and shrines are an exception. In Japan, it is common to visit temples and shrines on New Year’s Eve (December 31) to celebrate the New Year. One well-known temple that is a very popular location during “O-Shogatsu” is Zojoji Temple. This is what New Year’s at a Japanese temple is like!
Zojoji is a temple with a history of about 600 years and is linked to the Tokugawa clan which started the Edo Shogunate. Today, the temple is known for the “Mausoleum of Tokugawa Shoguns” and “Zojoji Treasure Exhibition Chamber”.
Last but not least, Tokyo Tower arises right behind Zojoji Temple, and you will get an interesting sight on a special “collaboration”: a historical building from the Edo period and a structure representing modern Japan.
The charm of New Year’s at Zojoji Temple
We recommend that you head to Zojoji Temple not too late. That’s because around midnight on New Year’s Eve, about 10,000 people gather in the precincts of the temple. Unlike in many countries, there are no fireworks in Japan to celebrate the Ney Year.
Instead, you will first hear something like a mumbling, then the voices getting louder and louder until you will clearly hear a countdown in various languages . Then, when it is midnight, everyone is cheering with joy – like everywhere else in the world: “Happy New Year!” (= “akemashite omedetou”). Immediately after that, the temple bell starts ringing.
In Japan, there is a custom of ringing the temple bell 108 times around midnight on New Year’s Eve. It is said that 108 is the number of passions and obsessions entrapping us in the cycle of suffering and reincarnation called “bonno” in Buddhism. The 108 chimes remove these desires to make you happy. Zojoji Temple is one of the temples in Tokyo where you can still experience these chimes at night as the number of temples that keep to this tradition is decreasing.
So much more to see!
There are many food-stands in the precincts of Zojoji Temple on New Year’s Day, and if you are lucky, you might get some amazake (traditional sweet, low-alcohol Japanese drink made from fermented rice) handed out free of charge. The biggest surprise might be the big bonfire. In the middle of the precincts, monks will burn last year’s amulets and “omikuji” fortune-telling paper strips.
After worshiping, don’t forget to get an amulet and an omikuji for good luck and to find out about your fortune in the New Year. There are various types to choose from, so you will find something that fits you. An amulet makes for a nice souvenir as well!
A bit more about worshipping in Japan
The way of worshiping (or making a wish) differs slightly between temples and shrines.
If you plan to visit a shrine, check out this video!
(There is also some information about what to do a a temple.)
Be sure to visit a temple to make a truly Japanese-style “New Year’s”-experience and to feel this big part of Japanese culture!