Hatsumode at Senso-ji


On the 31st of December the entire Crew of Eight — Tessa, Leon, Mart, Jorge, Courtney, Nancy, Dennis and myself — found ourselves in an enormous crowd, in an enormous line, at Senso-ji, Tokyo’s most famous temple. We were there for hatsumode, or the year’s first visit to a temple or a shrine, and so were at least 50,000 of our closest friends. Senso-ji and Meiji-jingu are the two most popular places in Tokyo to go for hatsumode (it’s estimated that something like three million people visit Meiji-jingu for hatsumode every year). It ended up taking over an hour to get to the temple proper because they were only letting people enter — in groups of around 500 or 1,000 — in stages. But the wait was no problem at all — although it was cold, there was a beautiful almost-full moon out, and we were able to buy amazake and manju to keep us warm as we filed down the road of shops and stalls that leads to the temple. Besides, hatsumode is a festive time and there’s a special mood of renewal that runs through Japan at this time of year, a kind of undercurrent of electric anticipation and camaraderie that circulates through the crowd in almost tangible wavelets and eddies.

At midnight, while we were still in line to get to the entrance of the temple, all the lights that had been waiting silently outside of the temple came on.

If you’re waiting in line to get into a famous temple and there’s a display of lights and there are no camera phones in evidence then clearly you aren’t in Japan.

This is the famous Kaminarimon, or “Thunder Gate” — the main entrance to Senso-ji. The enormous red lantern here (which says ‘kaminarimon’ in huge characters) is flanked by large guardian deities (Fujin and Raijin) on either side. The lantern is about three people tall and two people wide. (“People” is the new, and very objective, measurement system that I’ll be employing from now on. For example, the computer I’m writing this on right now is about 0.17 of a people.)

We bought our first round of amazake — a sweet, warm, rice wine — from this stand along the Nakamise-dori, the arcade lined with shops that runs all the way up to the temple proper.

This stall is selling decorative wooden paddles (hagoita) that are supposed to be used for the game of hanetsuki, a traditional Japanese new year game that’s a lot like badminton. I think that most of the highly elaborate hagoita you can see here are actually just used for decoration, but I’d love to get an actually usable set for next year. Who doesn’t love to smack a little shuttlecock around?

This maneki neko image is one of the several auspicious new year’s images that floated above us as we moved down the line. Other images included the wild boar, of course, and the red snapper. Snapper is ‘tai’ in Japanese, and is part of a pun based on the phrase ‘omedetai,’ a wishing of congratulations and good fortune.

Here’s a view of the crowd at the Hozomon gate, which unfortunately seemed to be in the process of being reconstructed. The Hozomon gate is a huge, two-story gate that is the entranceway to the main temple grounds. Although the megaphones can get old in these situations (especially when you end up parked right in front of one), the crowd control in Japan is second-to-none when it comes to keeping massive amounts of people moving in the right direction.

It’s difficult to convey the size of the crowd in photographs — especially when you’re snapping while moving. I would have been great to be perched somewhere up on the Hozomon gate, shooting downward, but somehow I don’t think they would have let me, even if I had asked nicely. This photograph and the next do a pretty decent job of it, but they need to be seen large for the full effect. The building in the background is, of course, the main hall at Senso-ji.

Here’s a closer view of the entrance to the main hall. You can see the lines of police that are guiding the crowd to the left and the right and up inside the temple building itself.

A blurry photograph of the enormous lantern at the temple’s entrance. I had to shoot this from inside the middle of a crowd of between 500 and 1,000 people as we passed underneath.

This is the main hall at Senso-ji, which enshrines a golden figure of Kannon that was (mythically at least) fished out of the Sumidagawa by two fishermen. No one is allowed to see the Kannon figure, but it’s paraded out (inside a portable shrine) once a year as part of a massive festival. The crowd inside the main hall was an intense ocean of people pushing forward toward the gold-plated main shrine that houses the Kannon image. Once within range, people began to throw their coins into the shrine area, which was especially covered with white canvas sheets to catch the profuse rain of money. We threw ours in too, and then threaded our way out as quickly as we could. It was kind of like being at a rock concert, but one in which the star is a hidden god.

The real reward for our temple visit came afterwards in the form of the divine appearance of a multitude of heavenly food stalls at the foot of the pagoda. We drank more amazake and wandered around picking up snacks here and there (oh, delicious choco-banana!) while bathed in the light of the moon and the pagoda’s illuminated glow.

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


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