Locked out of New Years Eve in Kyoto

Kyoto Bell

After one of the most memorable new years eve celebrations of my life in Vienna a year earlier, I spent a lot of time researching the best way to welcome in 2014 in Japan . . . and making the difficult decision between doing it in Tokyo or Kyoto.

While New Years Eve to us Westerners revolves around parties, drinking and fireworks, the Japanese celebrate a little differently. Their traditions involve family, eating soba noodles as a symbol of longevity, and watching a Japanese version of the TV show X-Factor. (I’m still wondering about the cultural significance of this.)

Aside from these customs of course, are the quiet celebrations held at temples and shrines to ring in the new year. So with this in mind, and considering Kyoto is the temple and shrine capital of Japan with it’s impressive 1600 temples, it seemed the obvious choice over Tokyo.

But as we stepped out into the crisp night air on the last night of 2013, armed with beanies and clad in down jackets, I began to have my doubts. There was something exciting about spending a freezing New Years Eve on the streets of a foreign city, surrounded by the warming crowds of strangers. But our footsteps seemed to echo through the deserted streets. Even the traditional timber clad laneways in the heart of Gion were void of anything but the beautiful little straw and evergreen sculptures, topped with mandarins, which graced every doorway. The imposing timber facades and impressive gates gave little clue to the treasures held within. It was all beautiful. Exquisite. Everything I’d imagined from my reading of Memoirs of a Geisha. But on New Years Eve, I’d hoped for something more.

The traditional streets led us straight into the heart of town, and in stepping across the footpath we stepped into a whole new world. The surreal dreaminess of the sleepy streets with their curtained restaurants and shrouded secrets gave way to the bustle of a city street. It was no Vienna, but I was heartened that there was something more on offer than a lonely night appreciating the facades of buildings that housed those families, and that episode of Japanese X-Factor

The Yasaka Shrine stood proud over the main thoroughfare, beckoning the crowds, and we let ourselves be swept up in the trickle that had started to flow towards it. The crowds thickened as we stepped through the gates and into a world like some sort of cross between church and Sideshow Alley.

With my hands snugly in my pockets and ears tucked into the neck of my jacket, we let the crowds flush us through the walkways lined with little stalls selling anything from food and good luck charms, to toys and Manga masks. Banks of lanterns twinkled above the walkways and peaceful shrine pockets jutted from the main thoroughfare. People pushed through the crowd and into their own little havens of reflection, even if just for a minute, to hang their wishes for the new year, ring the little cow bell and bow in the hope that their wishes would come true. A beautiful ritual, I insisted on doing the same.

The seemingly endless rows of market stalls carried us on past the temple, thinning out only as they snaked into the surrounding parklands. Men and women in traditional dress littered the crowds . . . including numerous Westerners who couldn’t quite pull off the kimono. But despite the hustle-bustle and push-and-shove, there was something peaceful, almost reverent, about the place. And as we stood for a moment of reflection I was filled with a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to experience such a unique celebration. And for all the wonderful things 2013 had seen me achieve.

In typical Japanese style, and well before midnight, a queue of eager punters began to form in preparation to ring in the new year. The crowds thickened and became speckled with police and other law enforcement authorities. Although I wasn’t fussed on participating in the ceremony, I imagined the ringing out of bells to be the perfect welcome to the new year, and I wanted to be in the midst of it. So as the temperature dropped I snuggled my face deeper into my jacket, and we found a vantage point near the main bell to sit out the last hour of 2013.

IMG_0360Although I was certain no riots were likely to break out over the ringing of the bell, the number of crowd controllers increased exponentially, and sadly, we soon learned why when we were given our move along orders. Every spare centimetre of space in the direct vicinity of the bell was required for the ever growing queue.

Colby shrugged as he slunk off towards the side gate. He didn’t care about the bell, or New Years in general, and anyway, he needed to pee. Not wanting to be swallowed up by the crowd, never to be seen again, I followed dutifully as he ducked through the Torii and climbed into a not so inconspicuous section of park across the road.

Only when we attempted to re-enter the shrine, did we come face to face with a human wall of police officers and realised we had been shut out of the celebrations. And less than an hour before midnight.
Frantic to make it back inside before the bell ringing started, I paced from one entrance to the other, a nonchalant Colby in tow, who would’ve been happy to return to the hotel instead of chase NYE celebrations. But the main entrance was barricaded more tightly than St Mary’s Hospital after the birth of Prince George and surrounded by police. The crowd across the street was almost endless.

Heartbroken but ever hopeful, I returned to our fateful exit, perched myself on a stone wall in a quiet corner across the road and accepted my fate. The cold seeped up through my jeans and Colby tugged at my wrist, eager to head back to the hotel. But if I couldn’t be a part of the bell ringing ceremony, I at least wanted to be around to hear it. Trusting in the process of life and making the best of every situation . . . even when it didn’t turn out as planned, was after all, one of my resolutions.

I watched as person after person was turned away by the crowd controllers just as we had been, checking my watch and crooning my neck to catch glimpses of the crowds through the gate. Finally, what I thought was the countdown trickled through the gates and out to our private vantage point. 2013 was gone and the new year was in. And all I could hear were the muffled sounds of the crowd . . . not even a single bell!