Quiet tea, talky tea

Butsuma--a space for the Buddha. Chanoma--a space where people drink tea, eat, chat.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Memorable temples--Sensoji in Asakusa, Tokyo

Almost every tourist in Tokyo has visited Sensoji--it is definitely among the top sights to see.  It is less well-known that the temple is the oldest one in Tokyo, founded in 645, according to Wikipedia.  The story: two brothers fishing in the river netted a small statue of Kannon (Kuan Yin or Avalokitesvara).  The village headman put the statue on display, which attracted many worshippers.  The temple was founded to house this statue.  To the right of the main hall, there is a shrine dedicated to the two brothers and the village headman.  Every other year, this shrine is the focus of a major festival, the Sanja festival.  Sanja refers to the three deified villagers enshrined there.  It is a prime example of the alliance between (so-called 'Shinto') shrines and (Buddhist) temples.  Anyway, back to the temple of Kannon.  The temple was visited by the famous monk Jikaku, who made a copy of the statue.  Some members of the Tokugawa family of shoguns patronized the temple; some of them (or some other patron) may be responsible for the famous Kaminari Mon gate.  This gate is a bit unusual, because it has representations of the gods of wind and thunder.  This may be for protection against storms and flooding, and is possibly related to another watery deity, the Dragon King, one of the supporters of Kannon. The subway station exits are near this gate--the view of the gate, a scenic willow tree and the long line of shops makes an immediate impression. 

Kaminarimon gate, featuring a large paper lantern and the God of Thunder (l) and God of Wind (r)

Many visitors do not make it past the long street of souvenir shops leading up to the temple.  For some, the commercialism is a bit shocking.  However, pilgrims everywhere, and especially in Japan, are eager to have a cup of tea, buy religious souvenirs, and buy a box of sweets to take home to Grandma.  It is true that there are probably three or four shops selling toys or junky souvenirs or sweets for every shop that sells incense and rosaries.  Regardless, please press on toward the main hall of the temple.  You will pass through the Hozomon gate (meaning gate in the form of a storehouse).  This gate also has guardian figures on either side.  Hanging on the wall facing the main hall is a huge pair of straw sandals.  I am not sure how this started, but offerings of sandals in various sizes are common in temples.  One explanation is that they are available in case the Buddha decides to go for a walk, but maybe we don't need to be that literal.  Passing through the gate, the impressive sweep of the main hall's roof dominates your view.  To the left is the five-story pagoda.  Old prints show the pagoda on the right side--I asked a volunteer guide why it was moved.  He said no one knows why, but here is my theory: on the left side of the temple grounds is another temple, Denzuin.  There is a beautiful Japanese stroll garden in the Denzuin compound.  In its present location, the pagoda contributes to the 'borrowed landscape' effect of the garden.  (Denzuin and the garden are generally not open to the public, but the garden is open on special occasions--check with a tourist info office.) 

The five-story pagoda and the Hozomon gate

Garden of Denzuin with the same pagoda seen in the distance

There is a huge incense burner in front of the main hall--it attracts lots of attention from sightseers, who like the story that patting the smoke on one's body will bring blessings, easing of pain, etc.  Just to the right of the incense burner is a small counter where you can buy a bundle of incense for 100 yen.  There are hibachis full of burning charcoal where you can ignite your bundle.  Carry it carefully to the incense burner to make your offering.

Clouds of incense smoke come from the cauldron. To the left is the ablution fountain.

Beside the incense counter, there is a place for o mikuji, a kind of fortune telling.  You put 100 yen in the slot, then pick up the cylindrical container and give it a shake.  Then, shake one stick out of the hole in the container.  That stick will have a number on it.  Open the drawer with the corresponding number and take the sheet of paper with your fortune printed on it (it has some English, as well as Japanese and classical Chinese).  You can take this home, or if you want some help from Kannon-sama, you can leave the paper tied on to a special rack for this purpose.    
The o mikuji container is filled with numbered sticks


Shake one stick out of the container, find the drawer with the corresponding number (and put the stick back in the container)
Next, on the other side of the incense counter (closer to the temple) you will find the ablution station, under the gaze of a large statue of the god Bishamon-ten.  This is the final preparation before entering the main hall.  You know the drill (if you have read my earlier posts on visiting temples): Dip out one scoop of water, swirl it a bit and pour it out below (this purifies the ladle).  Then, take another scoop of water--if possible, from the running water.  Rinse left hand/fingers, switch hands, rinse right hand/fingers, then bring a small handful of water to purify your mouth--don't drink directly from the ladle (although some people do) and you don't need to actually put the water in your mouth (although some people do).  Then, give the ladle a final rinse and you are good to go.

Bishamon-ten towers over dragons spouting water into the fountain
Go up the grand stairway of the main hall, or there is an elevator for universal access to your left as you face the building.  Many people line up in front of the large donation box in the center, but I feel this is not necessary, I just go right in on one side or the other.  The space is decorated elaborately--be sure to notice the dragon and heavenly maidens painted on the ceiling. The central altar is always closed.  It is covered with heavy decorated curtains that are changed from time to time (not sure why--seasonal, or related to the Buddhist calendar perhaps).  Usually there is a large Sanskrit letter, which represents the deity inside, Sho Kannon, or Holy Kuan Yin (one of the 33 forms of Kuan Yin).  There are usually elaborate offerings of flowers and sometimes saké, fruit, etc.  A few times a day, there are ceremonies featuring sutra chanting, where the priests enter to the sound of drums and bell.  There is a large offering box in front of the altar area, and this is where I drop my offering coins.  There is a bench around the offering box, which I think is for your hand luggage.  You should put your hands together to pray to Kannon, and it seems to be best if you are not burdened with shoulder bags or whatever.  Of course, this rule is not followed by everyone.  

A statue of Kannon is displayed in the main hall on special occasions
The statue of Sho Kannon is a hibutsu or hidden Buddha.  A member of the Asakusa volunteer guide association told me that the statue has never been seen by anyone in living memory.  According to this guide, the altar is opened only once a year, at midnight, with all the lights extinguished.  It is only opened for thirty seconds in complete darkness.  This is the strictest hidden Buddha that I know of.  Why are they hidden?  There are no stated reasons, as far as I know, but one possibility is that it makes people try harder to get close to or learn about the Buddha.  A copy of the statue was made by the famous priest Jikaku, but this is also never displayed.  On certain special occasions, another statue is put on display in front of the altar.  (Another example of a hibutsu is at the temple Gokokuji--it is visible at least one day a month-- I posted about this temple earlier.  Some other hibutsu are visible for a few days around Buddhist holidays.)

There are signs inside the main hall requesting no photography.  However, the signs are rather inconspicuous, and lots of tourists take pictures.  Once, when the statue was on display, I asked someone if it was okay to take pix.  The reply: if you don't use flash, *maybe* it's okay.  I suppose they don't want to chase down everyone who doesn't follow the rules--the atmosphere would be rather heavy.  But I hope that visitors will use their cameras discreetly, without flash or tripods, or noisy shutter sounds.  

The main hall is a ferro-concrete reproduction of the Edo-period original.  The sweep of the roof impresses everyone.

Behind the donation box, there is a mesh screen separating the altar area.  There is tatami on the floor there, where the priests conduct the ceremonies.  The entrance to this area is on the right hand side.  There is a rather brusque sign in English that says 'this area is for temple members only' or something like that.  This is not strictly true, but my guide friend told me that was posted because there were problems with tourists going into that area and causing trouble by touching things, making noise and so on.  So if you really want to go into the tatami area, you can, but you should maintain a respectful attitude, and speak to the person on duty there--maybe just a small bow and 'konnichi wa' ('hello').  For better effect, mention the word 'o mairi' or worship.  Leave your shoes neatly at the edge of the tatami area (notice how others are doing it), proceed quietly to the front of the altar and kneel.  There is an incense burner there with a coal smoldering under the ashes.  There is a container of incense chips.  You can take a pinch of incense and place it in the incense burner, with a bow (palms together) before and after.  There is a small offering box as well, and a donation is recommended--the incense has been purchased by the temple.  Other than that, as usual, the amount of the donation should be whatever you are comfortable with.  No one is checking.  

On your way out of the main hall, you will notice another omikuji place, and a desk where sutra books, rosaries, amulets and sutra copying sets are available.  These people don't speak English, as far as I know, but everything is visible in a display, so you can point to what you want.  There are amulets for various purposes--easy childbirth, school entrance, success in business, family harmony, and general ones.  You can get representations of Kannon in a few forms.  The cheapest one is a printed image that seems to be blurred on purpose--maybe that is connected to the hibutsu thing.  There is a nice temple-branded incense.  There is also a free bimonthly magazine, but you must ask for it, so it is better to ask in Japanese.  

The Buddha of 1000 months

If you leave the main hall on the left-hand side, you will find a garden zone with several small temples, nice for a quiet stroll.  There is an ancient stone bridge over a koi pond.  One of the larger temple buildings in this area has several Buddhas that correspond to the Chinese zodiac animals.  For example, I was born in the year of the tiger, which corresponds to the Bodhisattva Kou Kuu Zou.  This is where you can get a temple stamp, or just make a donation of a coin, incense or a candle in front of 'your' Buddha.  There are esoteric Buddhist monuments and also a Buddha statue with an inscription that tells us one prayer to this Buddha is the equivalent of 1000 monthly visits to the temple. 

After your temple visit, you might want to enjoy some kind of refreshment--there are lots of Japanese tea/sweets shops, coffee shops and all kinds of restaurants in all price ranges.  You will find something delicious no matter what your budget is--that is one of the charms of Asakusa.

At New Year's, you can get a cup of sake sold on the street, fresh from the barrel!

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