This was our last temple and the last stop on our tour, and, despite the historic significance of the site, it was clear that the visit was primarily for the purpose of topping off on souvenirs, since the “shopping street” is one of the most distinctive features of this precinct.
“Asakusa Kannon” is the popular name of the temple more properly known as Kinryūzan Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺). It is located in Asakusa, a central part of the Shitamachi district of Tokyo. (Though sometimes translated as “downtown,” the word more properly means “low town” or “town below,” the area below Edo Castle but still within the city limits. It is the older, traditional section of Tokyo.)
Legend has it that in the year 628, two brothers, Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari, fished a tiny gilt-bronze statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River, and even though they put the statue back into the river, it kept returning to them. The chief of their village, Haji-no Nakatomo, recognized the sanctity of the statue and enshrined the statue by remaking his own house into a small temple in Asakusa so that the villagers could worship the Kannon. The first temple hall was built by the priest Shokai in 645, making it Tokyo’s oldest temple.
The thirteenth-century history of the temple saw the development of Asakusa from a poor fishing village into one of the largest cultural and religious centers in Japan. The temple was the official prayer hall of the Kamakura shogunate from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries and also was known as the origin of the colorful culture of the Edo era. Because of its cultural background, many of the temple’s properties are designated by the government as national treasures. In the spacious compound stand the main temple, three gates, and six important buildings.
The approach to the temple begins at the Kaminarimon (“Thunder Gate,” which houses statues of the gods of Thunder and Wind, Raijin and Fujin) and runs 140 meters (or “over 200 meters” or “about 250 meters” according to other sources) northward along Nakamise-dori arcade, a crowded lane lined with shops. Nakamise was first formed around 1685 when the 12 subsidiary temples belonging to the Sensō-ji temple that lined both sides of the street were permitted to put out souvenir stalls in front of local houses in exchange for a promise by local residents to keep the area clean. It began to be called Nakamise (“inner shopping street”) because it is located between the shops of Kannondo-mae and the Asakusa-Hirokoji path. Besides typical Japanese souvenirs such as yukata, paper umbrellas, and folding fans, various traditional local snacks from the Asakusa area (such as senbei rice crackers) are sold along the Nakamise. Once makeshift stalls, today the 87 shops have a movable overhead cover to protect shoppers from inclement weather.
The Hōzōmon (“Treasury Gate”), at the end of the street, marks the entrance to the temple. The main hall, known as the Kannon Hondo, sits in line with the gates (as shown in the plan below). The temple is renowned for its giant red lanterns that hang from the gates and underneath eaves.
You reach the main hall after passing a huge cauldron of smoking incense. For a cure, wave the smoke towards areas of your body that ache.
We actually entered the temple precinct from the east, through the Nitenmon (“Gate of Two Gods”), which was built in 1618 and is designated as an Important Cultural Property. The gate’s plain wooden pillars are all that remains of the Toshogu shrine honoring Tokugawa Ieyasu, which was relocated to Ueno in 1651 after a series of fires. Niten-mon has since been rededicated and now houses two seventeenth-century Buddhist guardians of the south and east, Jikokuten and Zōchōten.
In contrast to the Nitenmon, the temple itself and most of the rest of the buildings on the site, like much else in Japan, were destroyed by air raids in 1945. The temple was rebuilt in 1958 in a unique architectural style, irimoya zukuri, made of ferroconcrete, and the steeply sloped main roof was tiled with 72,000 tiles. This was at least the fourth time the main hall had been rebuilt; the current temple structure replaced one built in 1651.
During the war the image of Kannon and several other artworks were buried and spared from destruction. The three huge lanterns hanging from the main hall were donated by geishas from various areas in Tokyo, alluding to the important role Asakusa played in Edo times as an entertainment area.
Tucked away in the northeastern corner of the temple grounds is the Asakusa Jinja shrine, dedicated to the two Hirokuma brothers who found the Kannon statue for which Sensoji was built, and Hajinoatai Nakatomo, their lord who initially enshrined the statue in his private residence. The origins of the Sanja Matsuri are rooted with the Sanja-sama, the Shrine of the Three Guardians, by which this place is also known. The shrine was founded in 1649 by Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun.
severely out of focus (taken through a screen) this photo gives an impression of
the inside of the temple, with its lavish use of gilt and flowers. You will not
see the statue of the Kannon, which is considered too sacred to be shown to the
the portico of the temple looking toward the Hōzōmon (C on
the plan above); the incense cauldron is in the center. At least some of
the buildings on either side are souvenir shops, at one of which I bought a
package of postcards (since we had not received any type of brochure, the temple
being open to the public at no charge).
through the Kamarimon (A on the plan above) toward Nakamise-dori (uncovered in
this photo). The kanji on the lantern itself are for “Kamarimon”;
the plaque above reads “Kinryūzan” (“Gold Dragon Mountain”).