Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

New Years at a Japanese Temple

New Years at a Japanese Temple
Prayers, Fires, and Rice Cakes ring in the New Year at Zojo-ji in Tokyo

Zojo-ji and Tokyo Tower

In the waning minutes of New Year’s Eve, 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.

Balloons fly off marking the arrival of 2008

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. (shmucks). When the real countdown hit, the lights popped back on and hundreds of balloons hit the sky.

Tokyo Tower – the Japanese version of the Eiffel Tower

The priests of Zojo-ji began the long ceremony of ringing the temple bell. For New Years, the bell is run 108 times. 108 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).

The Bell is almost 400 years old and is rung twice a day

Thousands of people lined up to do their hatsumode – New Years 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 thoughout the country to do hatsumode.

Buddhists Priests of Zojo-ji doing Prayers

Away from the Temple and its long line of people, I watched Mochi-making. Mochi is a traditional New Years 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 save her mother from choking to death by sticking a vacuum cleaner tube down the poor woman’s throat and sucking the mochi out.

Mochi dough inside wooden steam boxes being prepared for a pounding

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. Bits of mochi would fly out and strike the gathered spectators. I had a hard piece hit my cheek rather hard. While one guy wails away, another one kneads the dough inbetween hits. The dough kneader must have a lot of faith in the hammer-wielder’s ability or be on very good terms with him.

Got to beat the mochi to make it nice and chewy

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 middle men and send the messages straight towards the heavens (where they can read smoke apparently).

Prayers and such are sent heavenwards with a large fire

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

Old and New Japan blending together


January 2, 2008 - Posted by | buddhism, event, festival, japan, life, New Year's Eve, New Years, tokugawa ieyasu, tokyo, tradition, travel, zojo-ji


  1. Rock on. I went to Zozo-ji last year. First we went to Tokyo Tower, but there was nothing there except an over priced elevator ride to the top. Luckily we found the nearby crowds at Zozo-ji. We saw a fight on the street (in Japan?!?!) between some rough looking young men. The police tried to break it up but were unsuccessful. Then this one old guy in sunglasses steps up and yells for it to stop. Everyone immediately froze and started bowing to him. It was like something straight out of a yak-sploitation movie!

    Comment by Brian | January 2, 2008 | Reply

  2. Wow! that’s cool! He must have been some head honcho that people knew not to miss with. I saw a fight in Roppongi but that’s nothing special.

    Comment by samuraidave | January 2, 2008 | Reply

  3. […] New Years At A Japanese Temple/ Tags: japan, tokyo, New Years, Japanese Culture , video, Tag Index « Street Musicians in Munich – Mozart in Munich | Home | […]

    Pingback by New Year’s at a Japanese Temple in Tokyo » TravelBlog Archive » Roving Ronin Report | January 26, 2008 | Reply

  4. I live a couple of stops away from Kamakura and would like to go there tomorrow night. Wonder if they do the balloons too?

    Comment by Katie | December 30, 2008 | Reply

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