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Friday, Dec. 25, 2009

Temples, shrines offer New Year traditions

Staff writer

If you want to enjoy the traditional way of spending New Year's holidays in Japan, your best option would be to visit a temple or shrine.

News photo
In with the new: A Buddhist priest rings the bell at Sensoji in Tokyo last year.

On New Year's Eve and the first three days of January, the nation's temples and shrines buzz with activity as locals pray for good luck in the coming year.

At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, temple priests ring the joya-no-kane (the New Year's Eve bell) a total of 108 times. The number symbolizes the 108 bonno (Buddhist sins such as greed and anger), and the sound of the bell is believed to get rid of them.

At smaller, local temples the public often gets the chance to strike the bell themselves, a fun experience that visitors don't get when visiting larger temples such as Sensoji and Kawasaki Daishi Heikenji. With crowds numbering in the millions, this kind of bonus would be pretty much impossible.

However, what's Japan without the crowds. Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, Chiba Prefecture, was the busiest temple in Japan last year with 2.98 million visitors. It was followed by Kawasaki Daishi Heikenji, Kanagawa Prefecture (2.96 million), and Tokyo's Sensoji in Asakusa (2.39 million). Other busy temples include Osaka's Naritasanfudoson, Tokyo's Nishiaraidaishi and Nagano Prefecture's Zenkoji.

The nation's shrines can get busy as well. Tokyo's Meiji Shrine hosted 3.19 million visitors for the first three days of 2009, followed by Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Taisha (2.77 million); Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture (2.51 million people); and Sumiyoshitaisha, Osaka, and Atsuta Shrine, Aichi Prefecture (both with 2.35 million people).

While shrines don't feature New Year's Bells they can sometimes feature other Shinto-related traditions. Visitors can enjoy amazake, a sweet drink made from rice wine, and buy a hamaya, a talisman that wards off evil spirits.

Various stands selling foods and toys, and offering games dot the pathways leading to shrines or temples, and of course buying a piece of paper with a fortune might give you a hint of what 2010 will have to offer.

One more piece of advice, the vast numbers of visitors will guarantee long lineups, so make sure to dress warmly on your visit. Along with winter clothes, a small heating pad and a hot drink should keep you cozy.

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