The spiritual heart of Asakusa, and for that matter Tokyo, is the impressive Sensoji Buddhist Temple. Built sometime in the 7th century before Tokyo was even Edo, to house the golden statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, which, according to legend was fished out of the nearby Simudagawa, by two local fisherman brothers. Despite their efforts to return Kannon to the river where she was found, the statue kept finding its way back to them. Subsequently a temple was built to house the goddess. Sensoji is Tokyo’s only agreed tourist attraction, and is visited daily by hundreds of tourists and worshippers from Japan and all over the world.
Arriving from Asakusa subway station, Sensoji is entered through Kiminarimon (“Thunder Gate”). A majestic structure that houses two protective deities: Fuijin, the god of wind, on the right, and Raijin, the god of thunder, on the left. These ferocious gods oversee all who enter the temple and keep the grounds safe.
Once inside the gate, you will come to Nakamise-dori. This shopping street, set within the actual temple precinct, has it’s own history. These stalls and their proprietors are a living part of a centuries old tradition of selling wares to the pilgrims visiting the temple.
In the late 17th century, neighbours of the Sensoji who received and served visitors to the temple, were rewarded by being given a special right to open shops to sell their wares along the approach to the temple.
This continued until 1885, when the Tokyo metropolitan government, having taken control of the land belonging to Sensoji, ordered all Nakamise merchants to leave and in the same year built western style brick shops, leading to the beginning of modern Nakamese.
Today you can find everything from tourist trinkets, such as folding fans, to traditional Japanese clothing including kimonos and yukata, to local snack foods. Stretching out for some 200 metres, Nakamise-dori is the perfect place to while away an hour and pick up a souvenir or two before entering the main ground of the temple.
The main ground itself buzzes with accents from all over the world and the click of cameras. Travellers and locals mix on the temple grounds, uniting in their mission to pay their respects. 100 yen will buy you an omikuji (fortune written on a small piece of paper). You place the money in an honour box and shake a small cylinder containing sticks with numbers written on them. Shake the cylinder until one of the sticks falls out and pull your fortune from a drawer with the corresponding number. If your fortune is bad, tie the paper onto a nearby string so that the wind can disperse the bad luck.
Centre place in the temple forecourt is an incense burner. Here you will usually see a group of visitors fanning smoke from the burning incense over themselves. The incense is believed to have healing powers, and so fanning the smoke over your ailment will help to heal it. If you suffer from headache, fan some of the smoke over your head.
The main temple hall still houses the golden statue of Kannon, a diminutive 6cm tall, and is viewable by the public. Step forward to cast some coins in the offer box, which sits in front of the alter, take a step back, place your hands together, prey and then bow. This is the standard practise of preying at a Bhuddist temple.
To the left of the forecourt and forming part of the temple, is the 5 story (53 metre) pagoda. A 1973 reconstruction of the original pagoda built on the same ground. This is the largest pagoda in Tokyo.
Destroyed by earthquakes and World War Two aerial bombings, Sensoji Temple has been rebuilt and reconstructed time and time again. Testament to the significance it holds within the Bhuddist community and the general public. A remembrance of centuries old values and traditions that carry on today within Tokyo’s chaotic lifestyle, Sensoji is a steadying reminder that despite warring nations and new technology, some things will always remain.