There is little doubt that a port of call for many tourists to Tokyo is the centre of the Old Town, or Shitamachi, the district of Asakusa. It has a magnetic pull and is the very definition of photogenic. For the busy visitor on a tight schedule it provides many of the anticipated slices of Japanese culture that bubble to the surface of the psyche of those in the West when they think about “Japan”.
The most obvious loci of tourist activity is the world famous Senso-ji. Although this is a, lets say, “well developed centre of tourism”, it is well worth adding to your tick-box list of places to visit even if you are on a whistle-stop tour. To be honest, once you do scratch the surface there are pleasures and treasures to be indulged in and enjoyed at Senso-ji.
I feel a bit of context adds to visiting anywhere so let’s start with some basic background. There are two types of major religious buildings in Japan, the shrines of the native Shinto religion and the temples of Buddhism. Senso-ji is the latter. As with all temples, when you come here, expect to see depictions of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Arhat and famous priests. Senso-ji is dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Kannon so she features prominently.
A Bodhisattva is a being that has attained one of four sublime states of being in Buddhism and thus are revered as archetypes of compassion. So, this means that for the believers who come to Senso-ji temple, they are hoping to find salvation, aid and hope, and they have been coming since the seventh century.
However, what does this translate into for the more casual tourist coming to Senso-ji?
When you come to visit Senso-ji Temple you will first be greeted by the imposing Kaminarimon which literally means “The Thunder Gate” and is dominated by a large brightly coloured red and black lantern. The previous incarnation of this structure was destroyed by America’s strategic firebombing of Tokyo during 1945. However in the post-war period the national Buddhist community at large had a very lucrative whip round and paid for it to be rebuilt.
The Kanji on the lantern say Kaminarimon, if you’re interested. Like all Buddhist temple entrances the gate is flanked by a pair of guardian statues called Nio. The one on the right is named Fujin who represents the wind and the other is Raijin who represents thunder. Despite only being over fifty years old everything is done in a traditional style that does not scream ‘Twentieth Century’ at all, and the sculpting on the Nio and the intricate metalwork on the golden underside of the lantern deserve your attention.
Passing under the Kaminarimon gate you enter a long street of shops called Nakamise, literally “the shops inside”.
This is a long street of around ninety or so shops that line the 270 yard thoroughfare to the temple itself. If you are looking for souvenirs for the folks back home then this is the place. The prices are what you’d expect from such a popular tourist attraction but there is always some difference between individual shops, so if something catches your eye its worth comparing the prices between like establishments.
At the end of this long line of shops to your left is the Denpo-in which is where the head priest resides and is surrounded by a Japanese garden but this is not open to the public although to some extent visible.
Before entering the main temple complex you will pass through another gate known as the Houzoumon. This is means “the Treasure House Gate”.
This has another large lantern and, hanging from its far wall, a big, and I mean really BIG sandal that simply begs to be photographed. Check it out! A little further on is a large incense burner from which large plumes of smoke exude. You’ll often see people wafting the smoke onto their heads in the belief that it will bring good health or cure illness. Remember that Kannon is there to help and save people but do not be too surprised if you find that actually getting to the cleansing flames quite the squeeze and, I warn you, wafting smoke over you is likely make you quite as pungent as the incense burner itself. Try not to get too much your eyes, it will sting.
You will now reach the main hall that is impressively over-locked by a five-storey pagoda.
Despite there having been a temple on this site ever since a statue of Kannon was discovered here in the Sumida River in 628 CE, the main Hall and pagoda are also post-war buildings, the latter being built as recently as 1973. Buddhist relics are kept on the top floor. Remember the Houzoumon leads to treasure.
The main hall actually contains the original statue of Kannon although this can only be seen on December 13th so normally you be able to see the very elaborate display shown below.
Look up whilst you are there…
Dominating the ceiling are huge paintings showing Buddhist imagery that are simply sumptuous.
You’ve now seen the main features of the temple complex.
To the east of the main hall there is the east gate known as the Nitemon and to the northeast the Asakusa Shrine known as Sanja Sama. There is a specific festival on May 17th for this shrine but these deserve a separate article themselves so I will leave just this brief mention of them here.
So, I hope that I have demonstrated that a trip to Senso-ji temple is well worth your time as an enriching cultural experience, a slice of Japanese life and an excellent way to get all your souvenir shopping done in one go. Speaking of shopping if you look out from Senso-ji you can’t help but notice the skyline-dominating edifice that is Skytree. It is not difficult to get to there from Asakusa and makes for a fine way to finish of a day in the Old Town by juxtaposing it with the very new.