Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Asakusa Temple (also known as Senso-ji)

My very first visit to the temple was about fourteen years ago on a hot summer day in the middle of August. One of my friends and his family took me around Tokyo for sightseeing and Asakusa was our stopover after a delicious lunch of Omurice (Japanese chicken rice with Omlette) at a popular restaurant in Tokyo.

After walking around the narrow lanes of the long shopping arcade called Nakamise, we reached the temple's inner gate (Hozomon) - , notable for a giant straw sandal (waraji) hung up on one side.. A lustrous red building, a big red paper lantern hanging at the main gate (Kaminarimon or the 'thunder gate'), a five storied beautiful pagoda (Gojūnoto) next to the main hall (Kannondō) of the temple, and smoke billowing out from thousands of incense sticks jutting out of huge sand-filled containers - it was a view that is not easy to forget, even after fourteen long years. That was my first ever temple visit in Japan and I loved everything about it. (and that includes the huge and yummy ice candies that I had outside the temple :))

The place was crowded with visitors, tourists and was bustling with activity. You could hear the Buddhist monks chanting from inside the temple. People lighting incense sticks and planting them into these large sand pits and joining their hands to pray. Many of them, particularly the tourists were buying o-mikujis or random fortunes written on the strips of paper, hoping for a good fortune.

The o-mikuji is a kind of prediction of a person's chances of his or her dreams or wishes coming true, of finding a good match, or general matters of health, fortune, life, career etc. When the prediction is bad, it is customary to fold up the strip of paper and attach it to a pine tree or a wall of metal wires alongside other bad fortunes in the temple grounds.. A purported reason for this custom is a pun on the word for pine tree (matsu) and the verb 'to wait' (待つ matsu), which have the same reading in Japanese, the idea being that the bad luck will wait by the tree rather than attach itself to the bearer. I also bought one and I remember keeping it with me so it must have been one of good fortune (though I can hardly recall what it was about)

My friends told me that the temple was one of the most popular temples in Japan. Looking at the huge crowd in the temple grounds in spite of it being a weekday, there was no doubt about that. It remains that way throughout the year with thousands of people visiting every day.
Though I am not much of a history fan, it is always good to know a little more about the interesting places you visit. My friends had a pretty good knowledge about the temple history and were more than glad to share it with me. According to them, most of the buildings of the temple, built in the year 645, were destroyed during the war and are relatively recent reconstructions, the oldest one being the Asakusa Shrine, which was built in the year 1649 by Tokugawa Iemitsu. It stands only a few meters to the left of the temple's main building)

According to a legend, two fishermen—brothers named Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari—found a statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon caught in their fishing net while fishing in the Sumida River. A wealthy landlord named Hajino Nakatomo, heard about this discovery and approached the brothers and converted them to Buddhism. The three men then devoted their lives to the Buddhist faith and constructed this temple to house and honor the statue.  

 Various events are held in and around the temple throughout the year out of which the Sanja-matsuri is one of the most popular one. Held in the third weekend of May, ever year for three consecutive days, it is the largest and wildest festival held here and attracts over 2 million locals and tourists. (that must be good fun but not for the claustrophobic J)  It is held to honor the three men who constructed the temple and there are grand parades with people dressed in lavish costumes carrying Omikoshis (portable shrines) singing and dancing to traditional music. One can also enjoy geisha & taiko performances. All in all, it is one grand festival that should not be missed if you happen to travel to Tokyo around that time.

Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to visit the temple again since then but the month of May is around the corner and I hope to make it to the Sanja matsuri this year.

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