Seasonal year-end traditions battle for survival amid changing times
The Japan Times JIJI Jan 15, 2017
Two traditional New Year’s staples — the tolling of temple bells called joya no kane and the rice-cake-making ritual known as mochitsuki — are facing challenging times.
Complaints about the noise of the year-end bell-ringing tradition on the night of Dec. 31 and concerns about the potential for spreading norovirus when making rice cakes has caused the cancellation of such events, boding ill for their survival.
Many want such events to continue, regarding them as part of the nation’s traditional culture. One expert is worried that cancellations may undermine the social fabric of communities.
On New Year’s Eve, many temples ring their bells 108 times — said to correspond to the number of worldly desires — at the stroke of midnight to bid farewell to the old year and usher in the new one.
Senjuin Temple in Koganei, western Tokyo, decided to halt its bell-ringing tradition in 2012 after getting complaints from residents about the noise.
“We believed it that was good for the emotional development of children who attend the kindergarten (on the temple’s premises),” said Shoson Ashikaga, the 41-year-old master of the temple. “But we can’t ignore the voices of the local residents. … It’s sad.”
Daitakuji Temple in Makinohara, Shizuoka Prefecture, suspended joya no kane for 12 years due to grievances. The temple restarted the tradition in 2014, moving up the schedule so it ends in the late afternoon.
“It was a desperate measure,” said Ikko Imai, the 58-year-old headmaster of the temple. “But I’m glad that the number of worshippers has increased,” he said. Other temples carry out the year-end bell tolling before nightfall.
But the mochitsuki events, where hot steamed rice is pounded using mortar and pestle to make the glutinous rice cakes, are being called off one after another.
Traditionally, one person quickly shifts the rice in the mortar by bare hand while another pounds it with a large pestle. In recent years, gloves have started to be used in an effort to prevent food poisoning caused by concern over the norovirus, forcing organizers to abandon the events.
In Kawasaki, the shopping street in front of Musashikosugi Station canceled its 20-year mochi-making tradition late last year.
“We were not able to work out effective hygiene precautions,” said Yoke Arakawa, a 39-year-old member of the event’s organizing committee. “We were all looking forward to it, but it couldn’t be helped.”
At some events, the practice is to have children take part in the pounding of mochi. But since 2015, the neighborhood community association in Machida, near Tokyo, has urged participants to forsake immediately eating the cakes and wait until they return home where they can heat them up.
Takeda Shrine in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, held a mochitsuki event on Dec. 27. Afterward, the shrine held on to the finished mochi, refusing to pass it out. Priests there also wore masks and gloves during the event.
“It’s regrettable that we can’t do it in the same way we did in the past,” said Nobutaka Seki, a 54-year-old staffer at the shrine. “Since it’s a Shinto ritual, we devised a way to limit the changes to a minimum.”
Robert Campbell, professor of Japanese literature at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said, “Neither mochitsuki nor joya no kane is essential to people’s lives, but the events enrich lives and support spiritually affluent lives.” Before ending the practices, people should consider what else can be done, he said.
“Within the areas in earshot of the sounds of temple bells, there are loose communities in which members help each other in times of emergency,” Campbell said. “I’m worried that the foundations of such communities may be eroded if those events come to a halt.”