There’s a kind of hush poised on the threshold of the New Year in the Land Of The Rising Sun that feels a bit like Christmas. January 1st is a kind of holy-day here—cooking, cards and cleaning—are all carefully prepared beforehand, decorations, too. Feasting, family and favoured activities ensue. I enjoy the quiet. In my heart I am glad that the year opens with a Marian feast. I see myself a child, a hand open, raised and held by the Mother, even while I mourn and entrust my own to heaven. This year was a bright blue, promising kind of a day. Appropriate, I thought, for a beginning.
We hear no church bells. If you are in the vicinity of a temple, though, you will hear the 108 peals at midnight; a Buddhist confession, of sorts. More likely to be heard on New Year’s Day is a perky version of the otherwise sombre national anthem played over the sirens at 7 in the morning. We had snatches of drum, shakuhachi and Japanese harp wafting over from the Garden later on where crowds had gathered to see the cranes set off on ceremonial flights for good luck (and, need I mention, a thousand-thousand camera lenses?) The blessing of the wings, I sometimes think of it, and very elegant and moving it is, too.
January, I’d always thought was rooted in the name of the Roman god, Janus,* who is the guardian of gates, doorways, passages and endings. He is said to preside over beginnings and transitions, and looks both backward to the past and forward to the future. Something about these two faces of his put me in mind of the goddess, Kannon (KuanYin) who is often represented with a number of faces. In the years when Christianity was banned in Japan and the faithful went underground, there were statues created of the Mother of God disguised as the Buddhist deity, Kannon, Goddess of Mercy. These are called, now, Maria Kannon.
So, it’s a new year, a Year of Mercy in the Catholic tradition, and while I could walk down to the cathedral in town to gaze on the lovely, classical, white, europeanised Lady, I think I’ll walk along the river instead and through the neighbourhoods, past the Botanical Gardens, through the big, old temple gate on the side of a hill, climb the steep flight of old stone stairs and call in on Kannon-sama at Hokain (No.5 on the 33 Station Kannon Pilgrimmage in my area). She’s not anything familiar to look at; she’s not really even a ‘she’. . . except that sometimes she is. The face is calm, the ears are prominently lobed, the beauty, whilst somehow attractive and consoling, does not belong to my sense, but God is found in strangeness often, and more honestly, perhaps. I shall ask her to bless my vision, all my beginnings and my practice of mercy in the year to come.
* Some think, rather, that January is overseen by Juno, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janus#cite_ref-3, an interesting parallell too, Juno being known as Queen of the Gods.
** Image source: Paris Foreign Missions Society “The Virgin Mary disguised as Kanon, Japan” by PHGCOM (2008).