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Joya no Kane: The Tolling Bell Ceremony on New Year’s Eve

Toward the end of the year through the New Year’s season, Japan offers many traditional events to be experienced while traveling there. 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. Here we will introduce some notable Buddhist bells worth visiting during the New Year’s holiday.

Chion-in is the headquarters of the Buddhist Jodo (Pure Land) Sect founded
by the famed monk Honen.  This year, the temple celebrates the 800 year anniversary of Honen’s death.

The first temple we will introduce is Chion-in, the headquarters of the Jodo-shu Sect located in the historical and traditional old capital, Kyoto. The bell at Chion-in was cast in 1636, is 3.3 meters tall and weighs about 70 tons. Legend has it that the bell was so heavy that the supportive rings could not hold its weight, and it had to be recast multiple times. Upon hearing this story while visiting the temple, master swordsmiths Masamune and Muramasa were determined to cast a set of strong rings, which ultimately became the ones that hung the bell and held its weight. The large size requires a team of 17 monks to ring the bell on New Year’s Eve, said to be one of the most beautiful winter sounds in Kyoto.

Another temple in Kyoto definitely worth visiting is the Hoko-ji. Despite being a lesser known temple, its bell is historically significant as it changed the history of Japan. At the end of the “sengoku jidai” or medieval war period, the two most powerful warlord families, the Tokugawas in Edo (current Tokyo) and the Toyotomis in Osaka reigned over most of the territories of the nation. The bell in Hoko-ji was originally made to order by the Toyotomis as a symbol of peace; however, the Tokugawas interpreted the bell’s inscription as their opponent’s curse on them. This led to civil war in Osaka, which ultimately exterminated the Toyotomi family and led to the Tokugawa shogunate period.

The Todaiji temple bell is a national treasure and at 3.86 m
in height and 26.3 tons in weight, one of Japan’s largest.

There are many more noteworthy bells around the country. The World Heritage site Todai-ji in Nara Prefecture is also famous for its massive bell. The bell at Kanzeon-ji in Fukuoka Prefecture and Myoshin-ji in Kyoto are considered to be the oldest bells in Japan, both of which were cast around 700. Miidera in Shiga Prefecture is known for its beautiful sound. By observing or watching traditional Joya no Kane ceremonies, you can experience precious moments that will resonate with your spirit.


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.