Ringing in the New Year (with a very big bell)

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Like a budding time traveler, I entered 2011 a day before my friends in America. I counted down the seconds in a strange place among strangers. This is how it is for me.

It was evening when I arrived in Roppongi, not too late, and the streets were strangely deserted; but the closer I drew to Tokyo Tower the more I began seeing clusters of people.  Ranking up there with Mt. Fuji, Tokyo Tower is an icon of Japan, especially to fans of anime and manga in which the famous landmark is often referenced.  (It is in surprisingly good shape for all the times it has been destroyed by Godzilla.)  A perfect view could be found the the gardens of Zojoji Temple, which was to be my destination.

The temple grounds were still being set up when I arrived.  Workers assembled food stalls and information booths as tourists straggled about taking photographs.  Everywhere signs in Japanese and slightly decipherable English gave instructions and information, while LED screens gave the countdown in hours, minutes and seconds.  It would be a while yet before anything happened, so I explored, an action of curiosity just as much as it was a method of keeping warm.  The Zojoji temple complex is quite large, quite beautiful in the day, I imagine, but I was afraid to stray too far from the potential action.  Had I known how thick the crowds were to get, I might have taken advantage of the calm before the storm.

Soon the food booths were opening up and the air was filled with scents both sweet and savory.  I treated myself to a yogurt dipped banana at a stand offering a special deal; roll a certain number on the dice and you could win two for the price of one.  Only I became somewhat confused by the kanji on the sign and finally the worker had to shoo me away, so I guess I didn’t win.  In any case it was a good banana.

The crowd grew steadily, a healthy mixture of Japanese and foreigners.  It was a bit off putting the first time I heard a drunken man speaking loudly in English.  The majority of my trip thus far had been away from the typical foreign tourist congregations.  Around 8pm I joined attached myself onto a long line that wound through the temple grounds, people of all ages and origins awaiting their wish ticket.  When midnight came there would be no fireworks; instead the sky would be filled with balloons racing to the heavens with our wishes for the coming year in tow.

The night grew cold.  I dined on hot soba noodles, luck for the new year.  The crowd surged with talk and laughter and music and the pounding of mochi.  The clocks counted down.  Around twenty til’ I found myself a perfect spot, just in front of the great bell with a view of Tokyo Tower and the count down screen.  The air thrummed.  Suddenly the Tower lights went out, then a moment later began to sparkle.  The clock began to count the seconds, 30, 25, 15.

Ju! Kyu!  Hachi!  It’s a good deal harder to count backwards in Japanese at the spur of the moment.  The voices mingled, calling in all language.  And then the display flashed, and everyone screamed in joy, and the balloons shot up into the air, and Tokyo Tower shined. It was January 1st, 2011.

But the festivities weren’t over yet.  In a bit of cultural and language confusion, I never got to sign up to ring the great Temple bell, but I was right on hand to watch as one by one people were called forth by their tickets.  They were given a countdown, English or Japanese, and then they would swing a great wooden beam, four people altogether, to crash into the bell with a resounding boom.  On and on, 108 times for the 108 earthly sins.  It was a process that took quite some time, and people began to trickle away, heading to the temple itself to give their offerings.  The night was late, and cold; it was time for me to go.

I made it as far as Ikebekuro before I could go no further.  My destination was not popular enough to warrant 24 hour train service.  This was true for many people, for all along the train station were people clustered against the wall or camped out in alcoves, some of them drunk, others just stranded.  I had planned for such an occourance and made my way to the Gera Gera Internet Cafe, a chain which I’d visited on my previous trip to Tokyo.  Ten dollars got me six hours in a private booth with a computer and self serve beverages– better, I figured, than sitting alone in a train station for half the night.  I could have slept if I so chose but mostly I just browsed the internet and sipped melon soda until the trains started running again.   As I returned to the train station I saw uniformed workers going down the line, rousing people and sending them on their way.  I slept most of the way back to Fujimino, then stumbled out of the station into a McDonalds across the way.  My first breakfast of the new year was hot cakes.

And thus the sun rose on 2011.

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