tokyo dreaming: senso-ji

14Mar06

On Saturday, February 18, I headed over to Asakusa to visit Senso-ji Temple. It was a gloriously sunny day, almost not like winter at all, and the temple grounds were crowded with tourists and worshippers.

The official name of Senso-ji is Asakusa Kannon, and it’s dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon. Here’s the story as told in the pamphlet that they hand out at the main hall:

According to legend, the statue of the Kannon was found in the Sumida River in 628 by two fishermen, the brothers Honokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari. Hajino Nakatomo, the headman of their village, recognized the sanctity of the statue and enshrined the statue by remaking his own house into a small temple in Asakusa so that the villagers could worship the god. The blessings of the Kannon gradually received a higher reputation throughout Japan and people from near and far flocked to pray to the god.

Though the pamphlet doesn’t mention it, I believe that the Kannon fished out of the river is reputed to be gold. However, it’s impossible to know because the Kannon is enshrined in a gold-plated enclosure that is always closed. The temple complex itself was destroyed in WWII, but has been rebuilt since and is utterly stunning.

If you enter the temple complex through the main gate, you pass underneath an enormous red lantern that has the name of the gate, “Kaminarimon,” written on it. “Kaminari” refers to both thunder and lightening, and walking through the gate is supposed to be a purifying act. On the left hand of the gate is Raijin, the god of thunder (“and rock and ro-o-oll!”), and on the right side is Fuujin, god of the wind.

After passing through the entrance gate, you walk through the Nakamise, a shopping street lined with food stalls and both tourist and traditional wares. The place is bustling and busy and really feels like some kind of old-timey marketplace. In fact, all of Senso-ji has a sense of bustle about it, which is really great because it highlights Senso-ji’s central position in the vibrant Asakusa community, as opposed to appearing as a museum of religion that people only visit for its historical significance.

Unfortunately you can’t enter the pagoda, but you can and should enter the main hall and make an offering to Kannon. I mean, that’s why you’re there, right? And afterwards I recommend side trips to the quieter Yogodo Hall (to the left of the main hall), and to Asakusa Jinja Shrine (to the right of the main hall), which enshrines the souls of the two fishermen who found the Kannon, as well as the head of their village.

Click here for a gallery of color images from Senso-ji.

Click here for a  gallery of black and white images from Senso-ji.

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