Sunday, November 29, 2015         

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Rites get year off to a clean start

Varied Buddhist, Shinto and local traditions take center stage at a Honolulu temple

By Pat Gee


The expression "ringing in the New Year" takes on added meaning when Buddhist priests ring a giant bell 108 times during "hatsumode," the first visit of the year to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple.

With each toll, human foibles of the previous year are symbolically banished, clearing a path for a brighter future. The bell starts ringing in the waning minutes of the old year and continues as the clock ticks past midnight into the new.

At the historic Shingon Shu Hawaii on Sheridan Street, a 400-pound bronze bell, cast in Hiroshima some 90 years ago, was struck 108 times beginning last night to banish an equal number of human desires or sins named in Buddhist scripture, said the Rev. Reyn Tsuru, the temple's minister and director.


The following Shinto shrines will be observing New Year's Day "hatsumode" (first visit of the new year) traditions, which actually started on New Year's Eve:

» Daijingu Temple of Hawaii, 61 Puiwa Road, 595-3102. Open today till 5:30 p.m.; special blessings will be administered by appointment. A special gagaku performance is from 2 to 3 p.m. today. Regular hours are 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, call the Rev. Akihiro Okada at 595-3102.

» Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii, 215 N. Kukui St., 538-7778. Open today till 5 p.m.; tomorrow and Monday from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors are welcome at any time to pray and receive blessings, "ofuda" (talismans) and "omamori" (amulets). E-mail

» Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha-Hawaii Dazaifu Tenmangu, 1239 Olomea St. Open today till 5 p.m. Complimentary bowls of ozoni mochi soup will be served from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Special New Year's "otoso" (sake infused with herbs to enhance immunity) from Japan will be served until 5 p.m. The Shishimai lion dance will be performed to exorcise spirits and invite good luck from 10 a.m. till noon. Omamori charms will be available. For information, phone 841-4755 (Irene Takizawa) or 383-9383 (Bob Harada), or e-mail kotohira@

It is part of "cleansing yourself of all the bad karma of the past year so you can start out with a clean slate," he said. Negative karma includes "inadvertent speech, action or thoughts. ... We want to become tolerant, compassionate people, but it's difficult, it's not easy. It's hard for us to let go of resentment.

"We ask the Buddhas to help us let it go (as) you can't possibly forgive anyone without loving or forgiving yourself," Tsuru said.

Residents of Japanese heritage, as well as individuals from other ethnic backgrounds, line up by the thousands every year for varying purification and blessing ceremonies at Shinto shrines and certain Buddhist temples.

At Shinto shrines the occasion is marked by the pounding of taiko drums instead of the ringing of bells. Traditions also vary according to location, as Shinto and Buddhist customs have been intertwined over the centuries, and have also become localized in Hawaii, Tsuru said.

Shingon Shu Hawaii is among certain Buddhist sects that offer ancient rituals on New Year's Eve that bear a resemblance to Shintoism, the indigenous "naturalist religion" of Japan, whose followers believe spirit is found in almost everything, he said.

"It takes seven days to get to everybody" for New Year's blessing at his temple, which Tsuru said is probably one of the few temples that allows those attending the New Year's service to strike the bell.

Buddhists also follow the Chinese lunar calendar to observe the beginning of a new year: The Year of the Rabbit begins on Feb. 3. But celebrating Jan. 1 became the custom in 1873 during the Meiji Restoration, when the nation of Japan officially adopted the Gregorian calendar, he said.

One of the most popular of New Year's rituals is obtaining good-luck charms, or "omamori," which started thousands of years ago as simple scraps of paper with sutras written on them, Tsuru said. People would put them in little pouches and hang them from their "obi" (sash).

Today there are myriad objects and figurines, some elaborately detailed, which are made of wood, cloth, porcelain, paper or combinations thereof. Donations of $5 to $10 are accepted for them.

Some are designated for specific purposes, such as business success, academic achievement or driving safety. Tsuru said the most popular omamori are the gourd, which symbolizes food, and in turn health, happiness and prosperity; and the rake, to signify raking in wealth or prosperity.

One of the most popular of New Year's rituals is obtaining good luck charms, or "omamori," which started thousands of years ago as simple scraps of paper with sutras written on them.
"I get a lot of people asking, 'Do you have anything for my trip to Las Vegas?' I tell people to pray first for health, because you can't buy health. And from that will come prosperity," he said. "We always emphasize that they should be looking for the prosperity of inner peace, and you'll also find that success will come. We're hoping that (omamori) gives them the serenity and calmness to weather the current situation and improve the situation through their own actions.

"Omamori is not a salve. We like to think of it as a reminder that a higher order is looking out for us, that things can get better, but they also have to do their part. They should try to be more tolerant and compassionate and work hard, and you'll find that everything coalesces; you'll find you're a happier person," Tsuru said.

Tsuru recalled a recent year when one of his parishioners was definitely pleased with his omamori, one of the good-luck rings blessed with 21 days of prayers. The young man was gathering a long line of grocery carts when they broke free from another worker.

"They hit his hand; the omamori ring took the brunt of it," Tsuru said, adding that the young man was not injured at all.

The Shingon Shu temple is more than 90 years old and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Amid the magnificent architecture, artifacts and all the trappings of a Japanese temple, Tsuru has integrated local customs. A few years ago he started offering sermons solely in English.

"Before, Japanese Buddhist temples were known for their bon dances and for attending funerals and memo-rials. ... Many temples became just extensions of mortuaries," Tsuru said. But he is an outspoken advocate of making their religion into "a living Buddhism. It's not about going to memorials. It is really embraced by the younger people. We serve a Hawaiian community and we need to adapt."

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