Tokyo’s Historic Sensoji Temple Asakusa
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Founded in 628 AD the Sensoji Temple is the oldest such temple in Tokyo making it a must visit for foreign tourists. A recent restoration project is under way with the main temple already complete and the 5 story pagoda currently (July 2016) under construction.
Many people believe that the Asakusa Kannon deity enshrined here has the ability to bestow benefits on earth, and around 30 million visitors from throughout Japan and abroad visit the temple every year. In its heyday Sensoji temple was the epicenter for all aspects of Edo culture. Seasonal events are held throughout the year including the Hozuki Market (Chinese Lantern) and Hagoita Market (Wooden Paddle). The huge lanterns seen hanging at the front gate – Kaminari or Thunder Gate – are historically significant within Japan and represent part of the identity of Senso-ji.
History of the Sensoji Temple
The fabled story of Senso-ji begins early morning in March of 628 AD. At the time the capital of Japan was Asuka – currently Nara Prefecture. A pair of fisherman named Hinokuma and his brother Takenari Hamanari were out fishing in the Sumida River when they pulled up their net to find a statue of Bodhisattva Kannon. Word of this discovery spread to Haji no Nakatomo – the Asakusa village head. He immediately realized that the object the important Buddhist deity Bodhisattva Kannon. Soon after he took vows to be a Buddhist priest and spend the rest of his life in devotion to Bodhisattva Kannon. Later in 645, a renowned Buddhist priest, Shokai Shonin, built Kannondo Hall following a revelation he received in a dream.
Although Asakusa began as an obscure fishing village near Tokyo Bay it later became a bustling centre of activity as more and more people arrived to worship the deity. When the highest-ranking priest of Enryaku-ji (Ennin who was head of the temple of the Tendai School of Buddhism) visited Senso-ji in the mid-ninth century, he created a statue identical to the hidden one that can now be viewed and worshipped.
During the Kamakura period (1192-1333) shoguns demonstrated great devotion to Senso-ji and over time other leaders like military commanders and scholars followed in their foot steps. During the Edo period (1603-1867) the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu decreed Senso-ji the temple a place where prayers for the aspirations of the shogunate would be offered. The temple complex thereafter rose to become the center of Edo culture and which continues in present-day Tokyo where it draws some 30 million visitors every year.
How best to enjoy the Sensoji Temple
Upon visiting Sensoji Temple one begins with a walk up the Nakamise Dori – meaning inside street – which is lined with long rows of tiny shops ranging from basic souvenir to specialized shops like swords. Note that some of the shops are over 100 years old which makes the entire experience more meaningful. Walking down Nakamise Dori feels a bit like it would have a hundred plus years ago. On first appearance all of the shops look identical due to the row architecture employed. As one approaches the individuality of each shop unfolds making for an altogether unique shopping experience. The uniformity of the outer buildings give the market an overall feeling of organization and neatness one rarely sees in the modern cities.
Guide to sampling the street food of Asakusa
Nakamise Dori is also a great place to sample unique Japanese street foods.
Age-mangu (あげまんじゅう) is famous in Asakusa with several booths to be found as one walks towards the Sensoji-Temple. The name age-manju comes from the Japanese words age (fried) and manju (batter stuffed with sweet red bean past). Red bean paste the classical choice however other seasonal fillings can be found like pumpkin, sesame, green tea and custard.
Kakigōri (かき氷) is a Japanese shaved ice dessert flavored with a concentrated syrup.
Here one can find seasonal flavors like black sugar, strawberry, cherry, lemon, green tea, grape and melon. Some shops provide colorful varieties by using two or more different syrups. To sweeten kakigōri, condensed or evaporated milk is often poured on top of it. Although it is similar to a snow cone the Japanese version is smoother and fluffier- like fresh fallen snow. The traditional way of making kakigōri uses a hand cranked machine to spin a block of ice over an ice shaving blade. Today electric ice shavers are used with the razor-like cutting resulting in an amazingly smooth dessert. During the hot summer months kakigōri is a favorite in Japan with some shops embellishing the experience with soft and chewy mochi balls (glutinous rice) waiting to be discovered at the bottom of the bowl.
Ningyo-yaki is a friend sponge cake filled with sweet, red bean paste. Ningyo-yaki come in in a variety of shapes like doves and fish with each having a special significance to Japanese culture.
Kibi-Dango (きび団子). Kibi-dango is a variation of dango. The kibi-dango in Asakusa are made with millet flour. It is made by forming gyūhi (soft mochi) into flat round cakes. Glutinous rice, starch, syrup and sugar are the basic ingredients. Once formed into tiny balls they are boiled in water and then rolled in Kinako (toasted soybean powder) or thick & salty, caramel syrup.
Senbei rice crackers (せんべい). Senbei is a popular Japanese snack that can be found in an incredible variey of sizes and flavors each with a unique hardness. Nakamise-dori has several stalls offering an assortment of senbei sold both individually and in pack. Senbei makes a great souvenir although connoisseurs would be better of to wait and buy the better quality senbei found at department stores like Takashimaya and Isetan.
Enter the Sensoji Temple
At the Kaminarimon Gate. The two statues guarding it are two little-known deities called Fujin-sama (god of wind) and Raijin-sama (god of thunder and lightning). The Kanji characters for the two names are written on the big red lantern at the entrance. When passing through the gate look underneath the lantern to see the dragon motif.
After you’ve passed Sensoji Temple’s main gate look to left to see the five-storied pagoda named Goju-no-To. This pagoda was originally built during the 10th century. Since it is a graveyard visitors can only see it from the outside. Inside are memorial tablets of thousands of families and individuals buried there.
Next to the pagoda is the Hozomon with its two statues. Legend has it that the models for them where 1960’s sumo wrestlers Kitanoumi (left) and Myobudani Kiyoshi (right). The sculptor hails from Murayama city in Yamagata prefecture. 800 citizens of Maruyama visit every few years to create a the giant waraji straw sandals visible on the back side of the entrance.
After the Hozomon Gate is the main Sensoji temple where the original statue of Kannon the fishermen found 1400 years ago is purported to be. Several shops flank both sides of the entrance offering official Sensoji merchandise like scrolls, incense to burn and books about the temple. Here you can enjoy some of the greatest artworks from Sensoji’s collection located on the ceiling above where you stand. These original artworks were painted directly on the ceiling and upper walls. The temple itself is elegantly adorned with each representing the highest forms of Japanese craftsmanship. Urushi, brass, wood, stone and tapestry are a few of the extraordinary examples to be found.
Visiting hours are 06:00-17:00
Address: 2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku Tokyo Japan
- Tobu Isezaki Line: 5 minutes by foot from Asakusa Station
Tokyo Metro Ginza Line: 5 minutes by foot from Asakusa Station
Tsukuba Express: 5 minutes by foot from Asakusa Station
Toei Asakusa Line: 7 minutes by foot from the A4 Exit of Asakusa Station
- Toei Bus
Keisei Town Bus
Taito Ward Loop Bus Megurin