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Japanese greet 1999 with prayers

This city of about 8-million people took on the quiet rhythms of a rural village early today, as Japanese ritually sounded 108 chimes to stamp out evil spirits and welcome in the New Year.

At midnight at the Enshoji Temple in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, grandparents, young children, shopkeepers and homemakers were among perhaps 100-million people across Japan who trooped to neighborhood temples to pray, with hands clasped and heads bowed, for a prosperous New Year. Anger, jealousy, anxiety, sorrow and the rest of the 108 anguishes of human beings were said to fall away as each sonorous peal of the gong died away.

"I have no religious feelings," said Hayato Nakagawa, 21, echoing the views of many as he waited his turn to climb the temple steps, toss a donation into the offertory chest and make a silent wish. "But when I pray for good luck, I sometimes believe it will happen."

In Japan, New Year's Day is more solemn than celebratory. Meditative moments just after midnight symbolize a period of reflection and renewal. But they culminate frantic preparation for a holiday far more important than Christmas and much more distinctive than a Western New Year's party.

Across the Japanese archipelago, a deeply ceremonious (if not superstitious) people took on days of ritual chores. From ceiling to sidewalk, Japanese families cleaned and scrubbed and rinsed their houses, wringing out the dirt of the old year and ringing in a clean start. From classy boutiques to small appliance stores, workers similarly vacuumed and cleaned display windows.

Usually busy streets were silent at midday, as most businesses closed a day or two early to give employees time to prepare. Doorways of most homes and apartment buildings were festooned with pine boughs or elaborate Shinto decorations meant to bring New Year's luck. Cars boasted garlands of straw and red ribbons on their grilles, to prevent accidents and bring luck. Hundreds of thousands left the city for New Year's weekend with relatives in the provinces.

"I wear these clothes only once a year," said Tsumoru Sokoda, 36, a businessman in a long black kimono and tall wooden slippers known as geta, as he warmed from the midnight chill before a ritual bonfire at a shrine. "I have a certain feeling once a year that I should come and pray. For me, it's like a festival and a prayer, all together."

Grocery stores were mobbed for days with people gathering the last-minute necessities for the New Year's feast: special teas to bring long life, lucky sea bream, special sardine eggs or a special brand of sake to welcome in a prosperous year of the Rabbit, by the zodiac calendar.

Many people bought new chopsticks for the New Year's feast; others put out a new tablecloth or wore fresh underwear.

According to folk legend, anyone who cleans or cooks at New Year's is condemned to cook or clean for the rest of the year. So Japanese households busy themselves in advance to avoid lifting a finger during the long weekend, except perhaps to pour another beer.

"It's by far the most important time of the year," said Mitsuhiro Shimamura, as he prepared to sell his last load of fish in a supermarket. "In the last few hours before we close for New Year's, you can't even get in the aisles, it's so crowded."

The new year brought some tangible changes. At 2 a.m. on New Year's Day, another digit was added to the nation's cellular phones, because the system is running out of numbers. And people put up calendars marking Heisei 11: the 11th year in the reign of the emperor.

By midday Monday, when the citizenry awakes from another long night of celebration, postal workers will have fanned out by bicycle or motor scooter to every Japanese household, delivering New Year's greetings. In a carefully choreographed exercise emblematic of Japanese precision planning, virtually all the cards arrive in mailboxes on the same day.

IN AUSTRALIA: New Year's fireworks light up Sydney Harbor. The display was a dress rehearsal for the welcome for 2000 and the summer Olympic Games in September 2000.

IN JAPAN: Worshipers ring the giant bell at Tokyo's Zojoji Temple to stamp out evil spirits and start fresh for the New Year.