Note: I wrote this essay many years ago for the Grand Rapids Press guest editorial column and got lots of great feedback so I repost here on DesignDesignations.org sometimes for a New Year’s post. Enjoy.
When the big bell in Kyoto rings on New Years Eve, it gongs to erase the 108 worldly desires man is born with. For me, it rang to mark a new phase in my role as a mother. Like the New Year’s celebration in Japan, the realization of the change was a process, not a single event.
I started to get a glimmer of the shift when my husband, 15-year-old daughter and I arrived in Japan to visit our son, then eighteen and a veteran of nine months stay as an exchange student in Yokohama. He navigated us through the maze of ever so alien sights and sounds of the Tokyo airport, train station, hotel and restaurants.
How strange it felt to crawl into the backseat of a taxi, while our son conversed comfortably with the driver about our destination in a language so foreign from our own.
We took the bullet train to Kyoto where our son had made a reservation at a Ryokan—a traditional Japanese Inn. There he patiently guided us through taking off our shoes, putting on the slippers and finding our way to our small room spread with tatami mats and absolutely no furniture.
New Year’s Eve
On New Year’s Eve, we headed to Chionin, one of Kyoto’s largest temples. We were greeted with the sight of a huge mass of people—from our vantage point a sea of black shiny heads. While all four of us stood out, shoulder length blond haired our son, at 6’2” stood out the most.
We joined the swarm of people, snaking up a path, leading to a place we could not see. Every few minutes the crowd would surge and flow forward, sometimes causing us the four of us to separate. Fortunately, our son’s blond head acted like the flag tour guides often tote, showing us the way to reconnect.
Eventually, the line narrowed and off in a distance we could hear the deep clanging of a bell. Soon I detected a pattern. The bell would toll and then minutes later the mass would move.
I kept looking at my watch, aware of midnight approaching. I wondered, would the members of the group stop, sing, point to watches, kiss and hug? Would I observe the counterpart to the Times Square countdown?
Midnight came and went. The bell continued to gong and the hundreds of people kept surging forward.
When we got to the top of a hill, we saw the huge bell, actually the largest in Japan, dating to the 1700s. It took eleven monks to pull the giant, three foot diameter log like ringer back to make it gong, a sight I will always remember. The monk on the end gracefully flipped backwards to get out of the way an instant before the ringer hit the huge bell.
After each gong, a collective Ahhhhh went up from the crowd, and almost in single motion, the huge group bowed slightly from the waist, a typical Japanese motion. Young men dressed in almost iridescent green uniforms energetically gestured with their arms, politely moving the crowd around the bell and down the backside of the hill, making room for more observers.
108 gongs of the big bell
We learned that the gongs ring out the 108 sins the Japanese believe man is born possessing. When it is over, the New Year has arrived. This takes several hours. It is a process. The Japanese believe they now possess a clean slate going into the New Year.
The New Year’s Festival
We walked down the backside of the hill to a festival area— mystical in the eerie light and thickening mist. We saw lanterns on ropes stretched from tree to tree and many food booths situated along pathways. We marveled at the glowing fires in the booths, the tones of Japanese music and the strange look of people carrying around ropes of about 18 inches burning at one end.
Our son bought us squids on a stick and daifukku, small doughy concoctions with sweet bean paste in the center. We leaned against a fence to nibble our snacks. Between bites, he grinned and said, “The kids next to us are talking to their friends on their cell phone and telling them about us.”
He spoke to them in Japanese. They reacted with surprise but soon our son and the three teenagers from Osaka were engrossed in conversation. Before long he explained he and our daughter wanted to go off and meet the kids on the other end of the cell phone call to prove they were really Americans.
Since it was very late, our son offered to find us a taxi and give the driver instructions to send us home. Not being comfortable with separation, we suggested he find us a place to wait where we could be warm.
He did and that is where the realization really hit me. Our roles have reversed.
Roles have Reversed
He parked us in a small and cozy bar. After giving instructions to the owner to “take care of my parents” he left, his sister happily in tow.
I realized it then. This is adult day care. He has dropped us off, given instructions, made plans to pick us back up, assured the proprietor he would pay and went on his merry way just as I did for years—leaving kids at playgroups, nursery school, after school activities and babysitters.
We loved it. Our Japanese caretakers took good care of us, keeping our glasses full, serving us delicious hot noodles, nodding and grinning at us. We think they told everyone who came into the hideaway bar about the American parents left behind by their almost adult children.
They would chatter in the lilting consonant vowel consonant vowel vocabulary and then all would look at us, smile and acknowledge us with the characteristic slight bow. Feeling a little foolish, we would grin back.
Several hours later the kids returned. In the fog of happy fatigue, we caught a taxi to our Japanese Inn, managed to get the slipper routine right and curled up on our mats for a good night’s sleep.
I knew I had seen a lot that was new but mostly in the core of my being I knew my job as Mother was forever changed, an association tied in my mind with the ringing of the giant bell. While I might have had a tinge of sadness for the loss of my little boy, having a grown up young man to show me the sights of the world was clearly something to savor and enjoy.