Hello there! This is Thersa Matsuura and you’re listening to Uncanny Japan.
Here it is the end of 2023 and I’m feeling that “reflective anticipation” I think we all get around this time. Looking back on the past year and trying to digest and make sense of it, but then at the same time feeling excited and hopeful about the coming one.
This is the last show of season 7 and for it I’d like to take you up into the hills to my local temple, where I’ve spent every New Year’s Eve for the past 25 five years or more. This way you, too, can experience the calming, meditative, and thoroughly spirit cleansing vibes of Joya no Kane.
You might have heard me talk about this tradition of ringing out the old year and ringing in the new one, but today I’ll go into more detail about it.
So close your eyes and dig these purifying, peaceful temple bell vibes. The one’s you hear now were recorded on the binaural microphones this past New Year’s Eve through to New Years Day 2023. Don’t worry. They still work. They haven’t lost their magic.
But we’ll be going again in a couple days, so I’ll put brand spanking new joya no kane mojo up on patreon soon.
So let’s grab our coats and hats and walk up that hill.
What is Joya no Kane: History
Let’s start at the beginning, what is Joya no Kane? Joya refers to New Year’s Eve, or the night proceeding the New Year. And Kane is simply bell. Basically, it’s the Buddhist practice of bonging the temple bell at midnight on new years eve. I just learned it’s also done in some places in Korea, too, but while in Japan it’s rung 108 times, in Korea it’s only struck 33 times.
Before I get into the significance of the number 108, let’s look into the origin of this tradition. During the Kamakura Era (late 12th to early 14th century) temple bells were rung at dawn and dusk.
By the Muromachi Era (14th to the 16th century) that grew into a ritual where the bells were rung during the transition from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Day. It was believed in Zen temples, this practice helped to dispel negative energy from entering the “kimon” (northeast direction) during the change from one year to the next. I talked about Kimon in episode 11 if you want to know more about that, but it’s basically the unlucky direction that oni and other bad things can enter and wreak havoc.
The point is to start ringing the bell before midnight and keep it going as the old year turns into the new one. If you want to visit a temple that does Joya no Kane, you should go a little before 12 on new years eve because that’s when it will start.
But check to make sure. Because first, not all temples perform joya no kane and there are some that have begun to change this centuries old practice. Due to complaints from nearby residents of the deep ringing in the middle of the night when they’re trying to sleep, some places have had to suspend the ringing all together or move it to during the day on New Years Eve –when everyone’s awake. Which kind of makes moot the whole protecting the changing of one year to the next bit.
In 2021, Ryukokuji Temple in Namegawa City shifted the time of bell ringing to 2:30 PM. They had good reasoning though. Due to the aging population fewer people were making the midnight trek to the temple, and those who did had a difficult time because the stone steps would get slippery with ice. Moving to an earlier time was to make it easier for temple goers to participate in the ritual.
The Significance of 108 Rings
Now on to why 108 rings. Well, there are varying theories, but the one you’ll hear the most and I always believed is it symbolizes ringing out humankind’s sins or earthly desires. But what does that mean?
I found the math! See if you can follow me.
Each of the six senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and mind – has three aspects: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral, resulting in 18 categories. Each of these 18 categories can be further classified as pure or impure, totaling 36. These 36 categories are then assigned to past, present, and future lives, resulting in a total of 108, symbolizing the human earthly desires.
There are other theories. Some think the bell is rung because if you add the Fourfold Miseries (36) with the Eightfold Anxieties (72), combined you’ll arrive at 108.
And finally there’s the thinking that the number represents a year. This one too is quite esoteric, but it goes something like this: By adding the number of months (12), to solar systems (24), to “micro-seasons, (“72) the sum is 108, thus symbolizing a full year. Voila!
Remember though that some temples just don’t count. Think how crappy you’d feel standing in line only to be person number 109. And told sorry, no lucky ring for you. Scoot along home now. Happy New Year, by the way!
So, yeah, not counting is also a thing. Unless, of course, only the monks at the temple are ringing then they’ll do exactly 108. That happens a lot too especially in larger temples. People gather to be there for joya no Kane but the ringing and sutra reciting is done soley by thee monks.
Radio and History and Live Streams
So how did a Buddhist tradition become so popular all over Japan? Why radio, of course. The first live radio broadcast of Joya no Kane took place at Kaneiji Temple in Ueno, Tokyo, in 1927. This really helped to popularize the tradition until WW2. That’s when in 1941 the Metal Collection Law came into effect and many temple bells — as well as ordinary people’s pots, pans, pieces of copper and old nails — were confiscated for metal recycling to be melted down to make weapons and other useful war things.
Bells might have been taken, but that didn’t stop the New Year’s spirit. People would bang on taiko drums instead.
Live Streaming Joya no Kane
You can listen and watch the bell ringing online if you’d like. It looks like some of the bigger temples will have live streams on youtube.
One that is particularly cool is Chionji in Kyoto. Here the bell is enormous and it takes a whole team of monks all pulling rhythmically on ropes to ring it.
The main monk literally gets parallel to the ground, holding himself up by the rope and using his entire body weight to bring the giant wooden beam knocker thing to hit the bell.
These days, still, Joya no kane is seen as a purification ceremony too — the sound of the bell as it washes over and through you, symbolically washes away all that bad mojo, so that you can start the new year afresh. It also represents new beginnings, and promises hope for the future.
So I hope by listening to this episode about joya no kane you are able to find a little peace and some hope but also have all your transgressions from 2023 carried away with the (. ) Of the bell. If your like me it might take a while so I’ll tell you what, I’ll let the bell ring for a minute or two longer just to make sure we take care of all those pesky sins. Don’t want to forget any.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for listening to the show and being a part of this strange little journey we’re all on. Those who support the show on patreon, because of you I’ve been able to spend more time working on it and writing. From late 2022 to early in the 2023 I was able to write five short stories, three of which were published the year. (. )
I was also able to say yes when asked to write another 12 part serialized story for the Asahi newspaper. That will be coming out starting in Jan.
And I had the time to write The Book of Japanese Folklore and work with David Dastmalchian on his upcoming comic Knights Vs Samurai.
Thank you so, so very much. I have more big dreams for 2024 that I hope to share with you and make you proud. You’re the absolute best.
Extra bongs of purification, good luck and hope for you.
Everyone, Yoi otoshi wo.