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Japan Rings in the New Year - 2002-01-01

The new year has already begun in Japan. The festivities that are underway, as well as the traditions and customs that are a part of nearly every Japanese family over the next several days. For many Japanese the new year begins with a midnight trip to a neighborhood Buddhist temple where a bell rings 108 times. The belief is that those who hear the bell will be rid of the 108 earthly desires.

At Zojoji, a large Buddhist temple in the shadow of Tokyo Tower, tens of thousands were on hand to hear the bell. For those who could not or did not want to visit a Buddhist temple, it was possible to ring a virtual bell on an internet site.

Japanese mix Buddhist traditions with those of the older indigenous Shinto faith. And tradition also calls for a visit to a Shinto shrine within the first several days of the new year. The most popular is the shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji in Tokyo. It is expected to play host to more than three-million visitors in the first few days of January, according to the National Police Agency.

The rituals for the new year actually begin prior to December 31. Many families thoroughly clean house -- right down to replacing the tatami mats - Japan's traditional household flooring. Many homes and offices are decorated with sprays of green pine branches called kadomatsu, accompanied by oblong pieces of white paper for ritual purification. This is to greet the deity of the incoming year, known as the toshigami.

For the children in the household, New Year's is when they strike it rich. The average middle school child this year can expect to receive from relatives a total amount of cash equivalent to about $300, according to bank surveys.

On New Year's Day one of the most popular special foods is a sticky rice cake called mochi. Each year dozens of elderly people die when the rice cakes get stuck in their throat. For the luckier who begin choking on mochi, family members come to the rescue, sometimes even using a vacuum cleaner to clear the obstruction.

Another concern for the police are motorcycle gangs which make their annual sunrise tour to Mount Fuji early on January 1. Last year, police say they took into custody more than 250 gang members on a variety of charges on the first day of the year.

Most Japanese during the first day of the year will go to the mailbox. It is the busiest day of the year for the Japanese postal service which has a special delivery of New Year's postcards which Japanese exchange with family, friends and business acquaintances. More than one-billion cards are delivered.

This year, a lot of those cards will be adorned with drawings of horses as 2002 on the Chinese zodiac calendar, which the Japanese also use, is the year of the horse. And actually 2002 on the Japanese calendar is a year known as Heisei 14, marking the 14th year of the reign of Emperor Akihito, who will be known as the Heisei Emperor after his death.

New Year's Day is one of only two days of the year when the gates of the Imperial Palace are opened to the general public and the Emperor greets the people, waving at them from inside a bullet-proof glass-encased balcony and delivering best wishes for the New Year.