浅草寺 Gates of Thunder

While visiting Tokyo, I returned to one of my favourite temples in Japan, Senso-ji, better known to Western tourists as the Thunder Gate. This temple is pretty spectacular; there is a long approach with market stalls, two impressive gates with huge lanterns hanging in them, a large temple complex and a beautiful surrounding garden. I simply had to revisit this temple while on my year abroad.

Senso-ji, 金龍山浅草寺, founded in 645, is the oldest temple in Tokyo. It is said that two brothers were fishing in the Sumida river (which flows through Tokyo) and found a statue of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of mercy. They brought the statue to the village where a wealthy man decided to enshrine the statue in his own house, turning it into a temple for villagers to visit and pray. This temple, like many in Tokyo, was destroyed by the 1945 air raids and rebuilt in the post-war period. It became a symbol of rebirth for the Japanese people.

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Senso-ji is most famous for the large gates and lanterns. There are two gates on the approach to the temple, the first is Kaminarimon 雷門, the Thunder Gate, which was built in 941 by a military commander. The current structure dates back to 1960. The gate bears a huge lantern with the characters ‘雷門’ written on it, which mean Thunder Gate. The lantern weighs 670kg and measures 3.4m in circumference. The gate is flanked by the figures of Raijin and Fujin, the gods of thunder and wind. It is believed that Fujin, the god of wind, actually originates from the Greek god Boreas – the image of the Greek wind god carrying a bag of wind was transmitted down the silk road, eventually reaching Japan as Fujin, who also carries a wind bag.

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The second gate, the way into the inner temple, is called Hozomon 宝蔵門, Treasure House Gate. It was built by the same military commander as the Thunder Gate, and when it was rebuilt after the air raids of 1945 it was rebuilt with flame-resistant materials. Because of this, this gate houses the treasures of Senso-ji, which include a copy of the lotus sutra and a collection of Buddhist scriptures. There are also lanterns hanging from this gate, the main one bears the characters ‘小舟町’ Kobunacho, the name of the town in which Senso-ji is situated.

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Between the two gates there is a long market street called Nakamise-dori 仲見世通り, which has around 100 different shops, with goods ranging from snacks, to wood-block prints, to kimono. This is an excellent place to buy souvenirs or presents for friends and family. This shopping street arose in the 18th century when locals were permitted to set up shops on the approach. Though it has changed a lot through war, rebuilding and restructuring, people have been buying the same things on this street for centuries. You can also take a rickshaw ride around the streets near the temple if you want to sit back and let someone do all the work of getting through the crowds for you.

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Senso-ji’s inner temple is fairly typical of Japanese buddhist temples; there are places to get your fortune, buy protective charms and a main hall of worship, however it is much larger in scale than most temples and it has a pagoda. I managed to get two stamps at this temple, one the standard temple stamp and the other a prayer to Kannon.

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Next door to Senso-ji is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the men that founded Senso-ji; by venerating a deity they in turn were worshipped as deities. This is Asakusa Shrine, 浅草神社, which was commissioned by Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, in 1649. Iemitsu is well known for bringing in the two policies that any student of Japanese history will cover when studying the Tokugawa period; Sankin Kotai and Sakkoku. Sankin Kotai 参勤交代 was the decree that all Daimyo (lords) must alternate living one year in their province and one year in Edo, the capital. This effectively drained the resources of the Daimyo, ensuring they could not finance a rebellion. In addition, they were required to leave their wives and children in Edo, basically making them hostages that could be harmed if the Daimyo stirred up trouble.

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The second policy, Sakoku 鎖国, is the apparent ‘closing’ of Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. This was brought into force by a decree banning all Japanese from travelling abroad on pain of death, and all foreigners, bar the Dutch, were expelled from Japan. This was due to the shogunate’s increasing fear of Christianity; Daimyo that had converted to Christianity were banding together and the shogunate feared they were more loyal to the church than to the Shogunate. Thus Christianity was banned in Japan and those that wished to continue would have to do so in secret; the Bodhisattva Kannon was often worshipped as a substitute of the virgin Mary – there were many statues of Kannon holding a baby with a cross hidden on the statue, which became known as ‘Maria Kannon’. When Christianity was made legal again in 1873 around 30,000 Japanese Christians came out of hiding.

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In reality Japan was not really a ‘closed country’ – there were still links with China, the Ryuukyu kingdom of Okinawa, the Ainu, Korea and the Dutch (who were allowed to stay on an artificial island because they promised not to spread Christianity), it was more a blocking out of the West than a blocking out of the world, however in Western eyes, Japan was a ‘closed country’ until the ‘opening’ of Japan in 1851 by American war ships.

There was also a small shrine to inari next-door to Asakusa shrine which we checked out. It wasn’t particularly remarkable but it shows how pervasive inari shrines are around Japan.

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If you are visiting Tokyo I strongly recommend visiting Senso-ji for a great temple experience and a chance to buy some souvenirs at the market. It is a very busy temple with huge crowds of people, but that is to be expected with most major tourist sites in Japan. It is also completely free!

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