Christmas may only come once a year, but there are as many New Years as there are calendar systems. In Bali it came in March, and for most of East Asia it comes in February. Japan, however, switched its New Years to the Roman calendar in 1873, when the country was actively opening itself to the West. So in the past month I have rung in the year twice: first in a mountaintop temple, and just this week in Yokohama City, which boasts the largest Chinatown in Asia.
As the story goes, a monk named Kobo Daishi went to China in the year 804 to study esoteric Buddhism. When he completed his studies and was ready to return to Japan, he threw three relics out over the ocean. He later found them, thousands of miles away, on top of a mountain in central Japan. In 819, he settled on its broad peak and founded Shingon Buddhism, which is still headquartered there today. He named the mountain Koya (高野山: literally: high-field-mountain). The mountain is now home to over one hundred temples and the largest cemetery in Japan. Even more stunning, however, are the groves of thousand-year old cedar trees that grow in and around the temple grounds.
Here is the evening in sound:
Shortly before midnight, a monk began ringing the bell, working the heavy pendulum back and forth several times before throwing his weight into the cord and finally making contact. He wore only a thin robe and his head was bare. As the bell rang, burning logs were carried around the temple buildings. We gathered with the other temple guests at 12 for soup, hot sake, and a quick countdown, then made the long walk through the cemetery to the central temple. There, monks chanted until 3am, when we finally returned to our frigid temple lodging. We were woken again at 6am for morning prayers.
You can hear them stoking a fire as they chant. Many of the Japanese families staying at the temple wrote prayers on wooden sticks that looked like paint stirrers. Later these were burned. I love the way the monks’ voices drift around a single note: occasionally building tension and then releasing. Here is our room looking over the temple courtyard:
Chinese New Year in Yokohama
The crowd that gathered for the opening of the New Years festival was at times frightening: the kind of crowd where you actually can’t move, and you have to keep your arms up or they will get pinned at your side.
The main event was the lion dance. A group of young men went door to door with drums, symbols, and a long lion costume, performing a short dance at each shop to bring them good luck. The crowd surged and heaved every time the show advanced down the narrow street. After a few performances, of which there must have been well over one hundred, I’d had enough. The open air of Yokohama harbor never felt so good.