Tokyo is famous for providing a plethora of new sensory experiences for visiting tourists. If you’ve got limited time to experience what most foreigners consider ‘authentic Tokyo’, your likely to reserve time to conquer each floor of a ginormous department store, eat at a novelty restaurant or café, and come nightfall, sit shoulder-to-shoulder among locals in a five-seater bar.
While you may not associate Tokyo with temples and spirituality, Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa perhaps succeeds all else in terms of historical and cultural significance. In fact, its conception is said to have greatly attributed to the popularization of the area formerly known as Edo, helping shape Tokyo into the thriving capital it is today.
Built in 645, Senso-ji Temple is the oldest existing temple in the greater Tokyo region. Due to its connection with the most powerful Shogun family, the Tokugawa clan, the monument is glorified not only for its physicality, but distinctly for its association with warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu and acquainting people to the traditions and beliefs of the Buddhist religion.
The Buddhist temple was originally built based on a spiritual phenomenon said to have occurred on the nearby Sumida River in the year 238. Two brothers were fishing when they netted a small gold statue of the deity Kannon. Unaware of what it represented, they decided to release it back into the water, however, it kept returning to the boat. The boys returned home and showed the statue to a wealthy devout Buddhist named Haji no Nakatomo, who immediately identified it as the goddess of mercy. He convinced the boys to let him house it in a small temple so that it could be revered by others.
The main building which stands today is located 6 kilometres from the original site and its appearance is far grander than what was first commissioned by Nakatomo. After receiving insurmountable fire damage in 1649, the temple was rebuilt by Iemitsu, the grandson of Shogun Ieyasu. Along with the Main Hall, rising high above the landscaped grounds of the temple are the Kaminarimon and Hazomon gates and the five-storey pagoda.
Senso-ji Temple achieved notoriety after Ieyasu announced it as the site where his family would present their future aspirations for Japan as prayers to be acknowledged by the gods. It wasn’t until he decided to decommission it as his personal place of worship that local residents became more closely affiliated and the area began to flourish with devotees.
The spiritual figure said to be enshrined in the temple, Bodhisattva Kannon, symbolises and promotes compassion and kindness amongst strangers. The statue of Kannon is meant to remind Buddhist devotees to go about their daily lives with the social wellbeing of others in mind. Perhaps this explains why so many Japanese people go well out of their way to help foreigners navigate through streets and train stations; selflessly abandoning their own needs and schedule to assist. If you like what the deity stands for, you may like to signify your honour by praying at the Main Hall. Do this by taking the Buddhist pray position before chanting “Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu”. The enlightening experience might create a nice mental souvenir for you to take home and share with others back in your home country.
Open all year round and free to visitors, thousands flock to Asakusa each day to visit the temple and lay eyes upon the famous 4-metre-tall red paper chochin lantern which hangs from the outer gate, Kaminarimon. Admire the Shinto weather gods Fujin and Raijin as you past under the ‘Thunder Gate’ to enter the Senso-ji site. Heading towards the temple’s main hall, you’ll unavoidable stroll through Nakamise or the surrounding streets which contain rows of small stores selling typical Japanese souvenirs. If you opt to visit the temple in the early hours of the morning, rather than shop for traditional snacks and folding fans, you can enjoy various murals painted on the shop’s window shutters.
Before entering the temple building you will see people surrounding a large cauldron with rising incense. Buddhists believe that the smoke bestows good health, so it’s common to witness people immersing themselves in the fumes upon arrival. Once inside the Main Hall, don’t expect to see the original gold statue of Kannon (it is hidden), or even its carved duplicate, for its only revealed to the public on December 13th of each year. Instead, you’ll be able to see various images of Kannon displayed throughout the 1,150 square-metre hall.
After receiving an anticipated dose of good health, prosperity and enlightenment, you’re likely to forget you’re situated within the beating heart of Tokyo. Having the option to shift from traditional to modern within a few long strides is perhaps one of Tokyo’s most spectacular attributes. Once you step outside the temple grounds you can maintain your new-found zen by opting for an undisturbed train ride back home. Alternatively, you can hop off at Akihabara (5-minute ride) and surround yourself in anime and tech-mania. If you do choose the latter option, remember to practise kindness and compassion, especially if you’re tempted into one of the many maid cafes.
How to get there: Senso-ji Temple is a short walk from Asakusa Station which can be reached by the Ginza Subway Line, Asakusa Subway Line and Tobu Railways.