On a visit to the ancient temple-district of Asakusa in Tokyo, Japan, Kalpana Sunder immerses herself in the narratives surrounding the magnificent Senso-ji Temple
It all began with a legend. It is said that thousands of years ago, in the Asakusa district in Taito-ku in Tokyo, two fishermen cast their nets in the Sumida-gawa river and instead of their regular catch, pulled out a statue of Kannon-Bosatsu (or Kan’non), the goddess of mercy. They returned the idol to the water but it came up in their nets again, and kept coming back each time they made a renewed attempt. When the village headman heard about this, he took vows as a Buddhist priest and transformed his home into a temple to enshrine the statue. And thus, the foundation of the Senso-ji Temple was laid.
Standing before its magnificent entrance, I began my journey in Japan on a spiritual note. I was in one of the most stunning areas of Tokyo, where the mystique of the ancient city thrives amidst a modern landscape of densely packed skyscrapers. “More than 40 million visitors descend on Asakusa every year in search of ancient Tokyo,” explained our guide Toshi san (san is the most commonly used title of respect among the Japanese), as he guided us towards the temple. One has to walk through two gates and a bustling market to reach the main temple compound. Passing through the first, the vermilion-lacquered Kaminarimon Gate, we noticed two gargantuan statues on either side. “These statues represent the gods of Thunder and Wind,” Toshi san explained. What caught my attention next was the gigantic red chochin, or lantern, suspended in the middle of the gate, inscribed with the word ‘Kaminari-mon’ (meaning Thunder Gate). At the bottom of the lantern was a beautiful wooden carving of a dragon, considered a protective deity. It is believed that both the lantern and the gate were donated by Konosuke Matsushita, founder of the Panasonic Corporation, who recovered from an illness after praying at the shrine. There are two more statues on the rear of the gate, of goddess Kinryu (the Golden Dragon) and god Tenryu (the Heavenly Dragons).
Through the Kaminarimon, we entered the 250-m-long Nakamise-dori street. Considered one of the oldest shopping lanes in Japan, it is always bustling with tourists and locals dressed in traditional kimonos and yukatas, buying trinkets and gorging on classic Japanese delicacies prepared with nori and kombu seaweeds. Shops here sell local handicrafts such as folding fans, wooden dolls and chiyogami (coloured paper), folk art products and ningyoyaki and kaminari-okoshi (local confectionery). I picked up an interesting papier mâché doll in red and black, with no eyes painted on it. The shopkeeper told me it was a daruma doll, seen as a symbol of perseverance. “You paint one eye of the doll when you set a goal or aim for yourself, and you paint the other when you have achieved it,” he explained.
I could see the towering roof of the main temple soaring into the sky as we approached the end of the street. Soon, we reached the second gate, known as the Hozomon Gate, which leads to the temple complex.
Two identical deities stand guard on the front wall, also adorned by a red lantern. “They are the Nio Guardians, the guardian deities of Lord Buddha, and this gate was originally known as the Niomon,” we were informed as we entered the premises. On the rear of the gate are two large straw sandals called waraji. “They were crafted by villagers in the northern Yamagata Prefecture, and it is believed that these sandals keep evil spirits away,” Toshi san added. In front of the main temple is a large incense cauldron, and I noticed locals embracing the smoke from the incense with their faces, clapping their hands and praying. It is believed that the incense wards off evil and cures illness.
The image of Kannon-Bosatsu is kept deep inside the Hondo Main Hall. We did not step into the inner sanctum but explored the surrounding space, where souvenirs bearing the temple’s seal are sold.
My guide encouraged me to draw an omikuji (Japanese fortune-telling paper strips). Hesitant as I was, he guided me step by step: shake a small container full of sticks; pick a stick, which will contain a number in kanji (adopted logographic Chinese characters) on it; from a shelf of drawers, pick out the drawer bearing the same number as your stick. The omikuji is contained in the drawer. “Rejoice if you get a good wish but if you get a bad one, tie it to a tree here so that it does not follow you home,” Toshi san cautioned me with a smile.
On my way back, I painted one eye on my daruma doll. My goal? To return soon to this ancient city, learn more about its legends, watch it light up at night and find glimpses of its history within its modernity.
With inputs from jnto.go.jp