Toward the end of the year through the New Year’s season, Japan offers many traditional events to be experienced while traveling there. And of course, Kyoto is a great place to be during this time. One of the biggest Buddhist ceremonies is “Joya no Kane”, or the tolling of temple bells at midnight. According to Buddhist beliefs, it is customary to ring the bell 108 times as this number corresponds to the number of evil desires that we suffer from on earth. Ringing the bell 108 times rids us of our evil passions, and purifies us for the upcoming year. Many temples all over Japan partake in this ceremony and allow people to watch or actually participate in ringing the bell.
One of the best places to be on Dec 31st around midnight in Kyoto is probably the Chion-in Temple, the headquarters of the Buddhist Jodo (Pure Land) Sect founded by the famed monk Honen.
The bell at Chion-in was cast in 1636, is 3.3 meters tall and weighs over 70 tons. The large size of the bell requires a team of 17 monks to ring it on New Year’s Eve! It is said to be one of the most beautiful winter sounds in Kyoto.
After visiting the Chion-In Temple, we suggest you to walk to the nearby Maruyama Park, then follow the crowd making its way on to the Yasaka Shrine.
Why do they ring the bells 108 times?
During the Joya no Kane ceremony, a bell is tolled 108 times. There are several different beliefs behind why they are rung 108 times.
The first and most plausible one is that the number corresponds to the number of “bonno,” or worldly desires. There are 6 kinds of bonno and they are further subdivided into 3 sections, becoming 18. Also, each of these 18 kinds consists of 2 categories, making 36. Finally, there are other 3 categories into which the 36 bonno fall, bringing the total number of bonno to 108.
The second belief is that the number represents one year in the Lunar calendar system, which Japan used to employ. In the calendar, there are 12 months in a year, 24 sekki (seasonal divisions) and 72 kou (other seasonal divisions), and all of these numbers add up to 108.
Lastly, it is also thought to mean “shiku hakku,” which is the Buddhism term representing all of life’s sufferings. The Japanese pronunciation of “shiku hakku” is equivalent to the pronunciation for “4, 9, 8, and 9.” The sums of 4 times 9 and 8 times 9 comes out to be 108.
How to toll the bell at the Joya no Kane ceremony
If you participate in the Joya no Kane ceremony, you should join your palms together before tolling the bell. 107 out of the 108 times are tolled in the old year (on New Year’s Eve), and the last one is to ring in the new year.
The Chion-in Temple is located just north of Maruyama Park and Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto’s Higashiyama District.
Hojo and Yuzen Gardens
Special evening hours during autumn and spring evening illuminations