Japan had always held a special allure for me. The sakura and the spring season, the melancholic autumn, the poignant Haikus – these were some of the clichés I had in my mind while imagining my travels in Japan. Having read a lot of Murakami had played it’s own role. However, what I was most intrigued about was how symbolic the start of a new year is for the Japanese people. The desire to purify and embark on a new beginning, the first sunrise of the year, getting rid of the old and stale, shedding the baggage – and all of this is still closely tied with elements of nature: the sun and the fire. However, the Japanese have embraced the western calendar instead of the lunar calendar when it comes to observing the new year.
On my first trip to Japan, I planned to spend the days leading up to the end of year in and around Tokyo. After a lot of research and talking to the locals, I figured Takao-san is a great place to be at. A Buddhist temple atop Mt. Takao, this is where I could witness the first sunrise and welcome the new year with thousands of Japanese people – not only Buddhists, but a mix of all beliefs. Takao-san is close to Tokyo, in-fact, overlooks the sprawling city. A couple of train routes later, I had left the busy city behind and arrived at a quiet suburban train station. From here, I took a cable car ride to the top of Mt. Takao-san, making the walk to the top really short. If you are feeling like walking it out, you could do that too.
The smell of the burning incense gently wafted through the cold and dry winter air. Candles and lanterns beautifully decorated the meandering pathway, creating a magical set. Chanting visitors took a break to drink some hot amazake at the numerous shops lining the pathway. Everything around me was deeply intoxicating and quintessential Japan-like. May I say – spiritual. All the visitors at the shrine appeared to be preparing for the gong – the main ceremony of the night. Visiting monks arrived after a while: they would usher the new year on behalf of everyone, ringing the bell 108 times, a sacred number in Buddhism (and other religions too). The temple had set up a few shops to sell souvenirs believed to bring good luck for the new year, as well as an indoor resting area to grab some tea and warm up.
With multiple escorts, it was evident that the monks were highly regarded and played a prestigious role. I followed the monks through the temple complex for a few pictures, but wasn’t allowed to get too close. Minutes before the clock struck 12, the monks began the ceremony and started the chants. The countdown to midnight started with the ringing of the gong. Euphoria all around. Quite a few people left the shrine after the ceremony, while the rest climbed further to camp out until dawn to witness the first sunrise of the year.
This new year eve would remain etched in memory – one that proved to be healing for my spiritual well-being. With numerous festivities around this time of the year and an unmistakable air of change, it is an exciting time of the year to be in Japan- and I look forward to visiting again soon.
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