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New Year at a Japanese Temple
Prayers, fires and rice cakes ring in the year at Zojo-ji in Tokyo
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2008-01-03 04:03 (KST)   
Zojo-ji Temple and Tokyo Tower.
©2008 D. Weber
In the waning minutes of 2007, I was able to get to one of the major temples in Tokyo, Zojo-ji, with less than 5 minutes to spare before the clock struck midnight. The place was packed with people and balloons.

Zojo-ji was once the principle temple of the Tokugawa Shoguns, and six of them are buried there.

In the last minute of 2007, all the lights went out. Some people started a wrong countdown to the left of me and when they reached zero, nothing happened. (Schmucks.) When the real countdown hit, the lights popped back on and hundreds of balloons hit the sky.

Balloons fly off marking the arrival of 2008.
©2008 D. Weber
Tokyo Tower -- the Japanese version of the Eiffel Tower.
©2008 D. Weber
The priests of Zojo-ji began the long ceremony of ringing the temple bell. For New Year, the bell is rung 108 times. The number represents the 108 sins of man according to Buddhist belief -- and we Christians thought we had it bad with a measly 7 (granted, they are deadly).

Thousands of people lined up to do their hatsumode -- new-year prayer. Japanese will pray for happiness and health for the new year. Over the next three days, millions of Japanese will visit temples and shrines throughout the country to do hatsumode.

The bell is almost 400 years old and is rung twice a day.
©2008 D. Weber
Buddhist priests of Zojo-ji doing prayers.
©2008 D. Weber
Away from the temple and its long line of people, I watched mochi-making. Mochi is a traditional new-year food that is a type of chewy rice cake. Some people die every year from it because it gets lodged in their throat. This usually happens to the elderly and the very young who can't chew their mochi so well. One resourceful housewife saved her mother from choking to death by sticking a vacuum cleaner tube down the poor woman's throat and sucking the mochi out.

The traditional way of making mochi, I discovered, was to put the doughy substance in a bowl then beat the hell out of it with a wooden hammer. While one guy wails away, another one kneads the dough in between hits. The dough kneader must have a lot of faith in the hammer-wielder's ability or be on very good terms with him.

Mochi dough inside wooden steam boxes being prepared for a pounding.
©2008 D. Weber
Got to beat the mochi to make it nice and chewy.
©2008 D. Weber
A large fire was blazing and thousands of written prayers and sayings were tossed into it by the box load. This was in order to cut out the middlemen and send the messages straight toward the heavens (where they can read smoke apparently).

Another year has come and gone but the memories and fun always linger -- unless you get hit with that mochi hammer.

Prayers and such are sent heavenward with a large fire.
©2008 D. Weber
Old and New Japan blending together.
©2008 D. Weber

- Some new-year activities at a Japanese temple. 

©2008 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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