Ringing in the New Year With Tokyo’s “Knotted Jizo”

The New Year holidays are a particularly important time in Japan. The country observes a three-day New Year celebration, which officially starts on January 1 (January 1-3 are national holidays in Japan).

Preparation for the holidays often starts well in advance; we give the house a thorough, deep cleaning, to ensure everything starts the new year fresh and clean. For me, that starts about a week before December 31. When I finish cleaning, I hang the New Year decorations.

Shimekazari and New Year Calligraphy on my front door

In addition to the traditional shime-kazari, which is made of rice straw and paper, and designed to welcome good fortune and drive away harm, I post New Year calligraphy. The scrolls, which read “welcome New Year,” are provided to every member of the neighborhood association a few days before the New Year holidays.

On New Year’s Eve, we had soba noodles for dinner, while reflecting on the past year and our hopes for the year to come. Eating toshikoshi soba( 年越し蕎麦), or “year-crossing noodles,” is another New Year tradition in Japan.

After dinner, we headed out – first to visit the local shrine, to say a New Year prayer. We’d head back in the morning for oshogatsu, the first shrine visit of the new year, but I like to take a quiet moment the night before, too. I’m not a follower of either the Shinto or Buddhist faiths, but I also believe my prayers are heard no matter where I say them. (YMMV, and that’s ok!)

Hiei Jinja Katsushika, New Year’s Eve

From the shrine, we walked through the park and along the river to the Buddhist Temple where we planned to welcome the new year.

Moonlight on the water, New Year’s Eve

On the way, we passed yet another neighborhood Shintō shrine – this one preparing to start oshogatsu shrine visits promptly at midnight! (There was already a very, very long line of people making their first shrine visits of the year, and saying prayers, when we passed by on our way home just after midnight.)

A few minutes’ walk brought us to Narihirasan Nanzoin, a Tendai Buddhist temple in my neighborhood also known as “Shibarare Jizō” (“bound Jizo”) for its famous statue. (I haven’t blogged on the statute or its history yet, but my friend and fellow mystery author Jonelle Patrick has an excellent write-up here. And while you’re at her website, check out her books, which are excellent.)

Nanzoin Lit Up for New Year’s Eve

We arrived before midnight, to see the annual ceremony for “untying” the Jizo. Before the ceremony began, we went inside to see the famous statue–or at least, what little could be seen beneath the many layers of knotted ropes. Jizo is a patron of travelers, children, and the lost, and known for helping people out of many kinds of difficult situations. People visit this particular statue when facing “knotty” problems, and tie a rope around the Jizo in the hope that he will take on the burden and free them from it.

Shibarare Jizo, just before midnight.

As you can see…he’s carrying quite the load. So many people tied ropes around him over the course of the year that he’s entirely hidden beneath them.

At 11:30 p.m., the priests and other important invited guests lined up outside the gates. The procession began, and the priests (some of whom carried staves reminiscent of the one traditionally held by Jizo) walked up the central path through the temple to the little hall where the Jizo stands.

The procession begins

The high priest said a prayer and then both he and the other participating priests chanted the heart sutra. People gathered in the yard to watch, though the crowd was not too large. Everyone seemed both happy and excited about the rapidly-approaching new year.

Prayers before the unbinding of the Jizo

When the chanting finished, the priests untied the Jizo, removing all of the ropes by hand. New Year is a time for new beginnings and fresh starts in Japan–and that includes Jizo!

Unbinding the Jizo

With Jizo free, and only minutes remaining until midnight, the high priest of the Temple gave a short talk in front of the temple bell. Exactly at midnight, he rang the bell to welcome 2024.

An encouraging word on the cusp of the new year

Before the priest delivered his message of peace and new year blessings, a line of people formed in the yard, leading up to the bell.

Many Buddhist temples in Japan (including Nanzoin) observe joya no kane at midnight on New Year’s, a ceremony in which the temple bell is rung 108 times–a number supposedly equivalent to the worldly ties that prevent people from reaching enlightenment. It’s also supposed to ward off bad luck and misfortune. At some temples, the bells are rung by priests, but at Nanzoin, anyone can participate (for a 1000 yen donation) — however, since spaces are limited, you need to sign up a week or so before New Year’s Eve. The participants also received a little bag from the priests, which appeared to contain a daruma and some saké (drunk for good fortune, and to ward off illness, on New Year’s).

Joya no Kane in progress

It took quite some time for the bell to ring 108 times, but we stayed for the entire experience. It was neat to see the wide variety of people who took turns to ring the bell. The youngest bell-ringer was a little girl who looked about 4 or 5 years old; the oldest person was probably in his 80s (but might have been even older). There were even a few foreigners.

As soon as each person rang the bell and received his or her little bag from the priests, they crossed the yard and got in line to pray at the worship hall and tie a rope around Jizo. He didn’t get much of a rest!

Jizo, ten minutes after midnight

Since we’d said our prayers earlier in the evening, we didn’t stick around to wait in line and add a rope that night, but I plan to go back and see Jizo in the next few weeks–assuming he’s still visible beneath the burden of so many prayers.

We headed home to get a few hours’ rest, because we had big plans for New Year’s day, including a traditional pilgrimage to visit the shichifukujin (Seven Lucky Gods) – but more on that in another post!

What’s your favorite New Year tradition? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!