Just before midnight on December 31 many Japanese people gather in parks and near Buddhist temples waiting for the first temple bell to ring at midnight. Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bells a total of 108 times (joyanokane) waiting until the sound dies before striking the next one. The whole process takes about an hour. In Tokyo, the capital of Japan, this major attraction is called The Watched Night bell.
Every year, the Asian Art Museum celebrates the New Year with a mochi pounding and bell ringing ceremony. A 2100-lb., sixteenth-century Japanese bronze bell originally from a temple in Tajima Province in Japan and now part of the museum’s collection is struck 108 times with a large custom-hewn log. According to Japanese custom, the number 108 stands for the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief and the bell ringing gets rid of the 108 passions and delusions humans need to rid themselves of to rid off their sins during the previous year and begin the New year right. It is hoped that with each reverberation the bad experiences, wrong deeds, and ill luck of the past year will be wiped away. Thus, tolling heralds the start of a joyous, fresh New Year. That evening families get together to feast on special extra long soba or buckwheat noodles to symbolize the desire for a long, long life.
The following verses are in raised text alongside the figures of the four guardian kings of the East, South, West, and North in the four squares that surround the bell. They come from the Nirvana Sutra and express the essence of that text.
All things lack permanence
This is the law of birth and death
Extinguish birth and death
Cessation leads to bliss
These larger inscriptions appear in raised text on the front and back of the bell in a single vertical line. They seem to rise up out of lotus blossoms.
Praise Amitabha Buddha
Praise Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva
This text is carved into the bronze on the right side of the bell. This is chanted after reading a sutra aloud. Reading the sutra created merit and this invocation passes the merit on to other beings who are suffering so that they can attain liberation.
We vow to confer our merit on all beings equally
May one and all attain awakened mind, be born in the land of bliss.
—Translations by Melissa Rinne, Associate Curator of Japanese Art, Asian Art Museum