For my first New Years in Japan, I wanted to experience the authentic Japanese-style celebration of the holiday. What better way to do than head to Kyoto, one of the best places to be for the Japanese New Year?
Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, bears some of the richest of Japan’s history. Buddhist shrines, gardens, traditional wooden houses and imperial palaces decorate Kyoto. Known as the thousand-year capital, For New Years, the historic destination in particular would be Fushimi Inari-taisha, a famous shrine located in the southern region of Kyoto and typically attracts legions of people around New Years. Unlike New Years in the United States, this holiday is not for excessive partying and instead is devoted spending quality time with family.
The shrine was teeming with thousands of eager patrons looking for good fortune. All of us lined up to enter the shrine at midnight, sandwiched in between two rows of food vendors. While countdowns aren’t typical in Japan, this place happened to have a bright LED board signalling the coming of the new year. But the most prominent way of turning the calendar in Japan is shrine personal ringing bells at midnight, a.k.a literally “ringing in” the new year.
As many people bull rushed their way into the shrine, my first order of business was to throw money into one of the open wells and pray. Now, I’m an atheist, but the Buddhist and Shinto religions always fascinated me and I always liked partaking in this tradition while also supplying good will. I ended up buying a small fortune myself for about 200 yen just out of morbid curiosity. As it turned out, my curiousity go the best of me as the fortune seemed rather ominous and I’d better to not detail what it said (according to a translator). However I did end up also getting a cool looking charm. Small victories!
For the two hours that I spent at the shrine, there was a constant stream of pedestrians all trying to pray, get fortunes and hope for good luck heading into 2017. With food vendors lined up out front and lights cutting through the darkness, the night had a carnival feel to it, albeit a very respectful and quiet carnival at that. I’ll admit I didn’t travel through all of the shrine as the grounds are quite large and these were 2 a.m. legs I was walking on. Nevertheless, being swept up in such an energetic, yet quiet crowd was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, not just on New Years.
For the day portion of New Years, I ventured out to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, an incredibly famous landmark settled near downtown Kyoto. Just like Fushimi Inari, Kiyomizu-dera was exploding with visitors with a lot of women dressed in traditional kimono wear. The timing of the visit could not be more perfect as the sun was beginning to set over the mountains. The dim early evening lighting made for some of the best photos I’ve taken in awhile, as evidenced by the photo below.
The night cap included a visit to the Gion district, which was once renowned for its abundance of female performers, or geisha. Alas, there were no geisha to be found on this night, most likely because of the day. However there Gion also bears a healthy amount of exotic dishes and shopping. This combined with the visits to Fushimi Inari and Kiyomizu-dera made for a very relaxing and exciting beginning to 2017.