Many people celebrate the new year in Kyoto at Yasaka shrine and Chion-in temple. I walked through Yasaka shrine but my experience was that it is extremely crowded and there are many food stands. Unless you like crowds or you are afflicted by the fear of missing out, I suggest that you venture out to smaller temples and shrines. I passed by Chion-in temple and followed the sounds of the temple bells I could hear from the north-east forest. I got lost in Nanzen-ji temple but continued onto Zenrin-ji temple.
Celebrating the new year at Eikan-dō, also known as Zenrin-ji, was magical. I followed the path of small lanterns and waited in line with the Japanese families and older couples. Buddhist monks were giving small cups of warm amazake. Waiting in line to the sound of some wood-stick noise, the chant of the monks, and the temple bell, was meditative and contemplative. At the top of the stairs, people were one by one climbing onto the platform, bowing, ringing the bell, and bowing again. On the way down from the platform, another monk was handing a small card and candy. Finally, I entered a small building where I sat on a small table and wrote with a brush and ink some characters, a prayer and my name, before giving the paper to a monk.
I imagine that there are many other temples where you can have a similar experience, but if you are unsure where to go, I suggest this one. Arrive around 11pm to ring the bell around 12pm. New Year at Zenrin-ji temple was magical and unforgettable (一期一会).
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