January 6, 2012

New Year's Eve in Tsukiji, Part 1: Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple

(Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple)

On New Year's Eve, major train lines operate throughout the night. Many people prefer to stay at home with their families and watch the annual Kohaku Uta Gassen (Japanese pop culture fixtures split up into boy-girl teams -- white and red, respectively -- and sing their hits) ; others head out to temples and shrines.

Two of the most popular temples and shrines to ring in the new year are Meiji Jingu Shrine, and Zojoji Temple, which is right next to the Tokyo Tower. (An added bonus: if you love your TV, even if you're outside, you'll be able to tell which team won on Kohaku because the tower will light up in the winning team's color.)

Since I abhor the crowds in Japan (they say three million people visit Meiji Jingu during the New Year period), but wanted to celebrate the new year in public, I opted for Hongwanji Temple in Tsukiji. (I've written about this temple before.)

The first impression many people have is that Hongwanji doesn't really fit in with their idea of what a temple should look like. Its structure is clearly influenced by Western architecture, and though it's a Jodo Shinshu temple, it almost looks like a Christian church. Standing outside, you could even hear organ music being played inside.

As you can see on the right, several stands were set up outside. One served fried food, another, the traditional soba you eat at the end of the year, and there was even a stand dispensing free cocoa and sweet warmed sake. Wood was burned in steel cans, and people were more than comfortably warm.
The candles lining the stairs were to commemorate the victims of the Tohoku Earthquake. By midnight, there were two rows on each side of the staircase, and also running down the center.

At 10 minutes to midnight, the priests went around passing party crackers to everyone in the room (close to 200, I'd say). This was in the room with the large Amida Buddha altar, so it felt a bit incongruous, but everyone was excited. After the clock struck midnight and the streamers popped out, the priests tossed these pink "lotus petals" up in the air. The crowd was then called in groups of 10 to line up to ring the bell. It was all over in a flash, but it was a lovely way to ring in the new year.

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