Sensoji Temple in Asakusa

Sensoji Temple’s Hondo main hall.

“If you don’t visit Asakusa, you haven’t seen Tokyo” is what I always tell my tourist friends visiting Tokyo, even those who don’t like crowds or tourist traps. Amid this megacity’s modernity, Asakusa is an oasis of Tokyo’s “old town.” Asakusa’s fame and popularity is owed to Sensoji Temple (浅草寺), Tokyo’s most famous and popular Buddhist temple also called “Asakusa Kannon Temple.”

Kaminarimon Gate, symbol of Asakusa (and Tokyo).

The iconic symbol of Sensoji Temple and Asakusa is Kaminarimon Gate or “Thunder Gate,” the temple’s main gate with a giant red paper lantern. It is one of Japan’s most photographed buildings and a prime spot for “I’m in Tokyo” selfies. Both the gate (rebuilt in 1960) and giant paper lantern were donated by a major Japanese electronics company (Matsushita aka Panasonic). The giant paper lantern can be collapsed from the bottom up to make way for portable shrines, etc., passing through.

Bird’s eye view of Kaminarimon Gate, Nakamise, and Sensoji from the eighth floor of the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center.
Nakamise in spring.
Japanese souvenirs galore at Asakusa Nakamise.

Right after Thunder Gate is the Nakamise-dori path (仲見世通り) of touristy souvenir shops leading to Sensoji Temple. They sell just about all the Japanese trinkets you can imagine, including T-shirts, kimono (yukata), and happi coats. Lots of edible things too, like chestnuts and fried manju.

Nakamise ends with Hozomon Gate (宝蔵門) housing another large paper lantern and a pair of Nio guardians protecting the temple. Hozomon Gate (“Treasure Storage Gate”) was reconstructed in 1964 with ferroconcrete. The second floor houses Important Cultural Properties (not open to the public). The back of the gate has a pair of giant straw sandals to scare away evil spirits fearful of the giant guardian the sandals belong to.

Approaching Hozomon Gate.
Back of Hozomon Gate with a pair of giant straw sandals.

After Hozomon Gate is the heart of Sensoji Temple (and Asakusa) with the picturesque five-story pagoda and Hondo main hall. Before entering the main hall, you may want to catch some smoke from the incense burner. Worshippers scoop the smoke to the parts of their bodies they want to heal. Students studying for entrance exams might fan some smoke to their heads.

Incense burner and Hondo hall.
Incense can be bought nearby.

The main hall has a traditional design, but it was rebuilt in 1958 with ferroconcrete after the previous building from the 17th century was destroyed during World War II. Sensoji’s main hall has been destroyed (by fire, lightning, earthquakes, war, etc.) and rebuilt almost 20 times throughout the centuries. It is Sensoji’s largest building and similar in design to the previous Hondo built in 1649. Inside is a large altar for Kannon (kept hidden), popularly called the “Goddess of Mercy.” It is actually a benevolent, female Bodhisattva. Sensoji used to belong to the Tendai Buddhist sect, but it is now an independent Buddhist temple and sect.

Steps to Sensoji ‘s main hall.
Inside the Hondo main hall, paintings of heavenly beings and a dragon on the ceiling.

The five-story pagoda was reconstructed in 1973 with ferroconcrete. The top floor stores some ashes of the Buddha brought from a temple in Sri Lanka in 1966. Its corroding aluminum roof tiles were replaced with titanium tiles in 2017.

According to legend, in 628, two fishermen brothers, Hamanari and Takenari Hinokuma, found a golden Kannon buddha statue while fishing in Sumida River. Their mentor Hajinoma Nakatomo recognized the statue’s religious significance, became a monk, and converted his home into a small temple for the statue. This temple eventually grew to become Sensoji, and Asakusa also developed and prospered. Considered to be the founders of Asakusa, these three men have been deified by Asakusa Shrine (adjacent to Sensoji Temple) and honored annually by the Sanja Matsuri in May, one of Tokyo’s biggest festivals.

Sanja Matsuri and a portable shrine in front of Sensoji (Hozomon Gate in the background).

Sensoji’s main hall, pagoda, and Hozomon Gate have been recently reroofed with titanium roof tiles instead of traditional clay tiles. Since the titanium roof tiles can be painted to look like traditional roof tiles, you can’t tell the difference. Titanium roof tiles are much more expensive than clay tiles, but they are much cheaper to maintain due to their high strength, durability, and corrosion resistance to acid rain and salt air. Titanium tiles are also much lighter and smaller than clay tiles to make the building much less top heavy. Top-heavy, Japanese-style buildings are more prone to collapse in a major earthquake.

Sensoji and Asakusa hold numerous festivals and events throughout the year. During New Year’s, the temple is crowded with worshippers praying for a prosperous and safe year. On Feb. 3, there is Setsubun when they throw lucky beans. In April, see the elegant White Heron Dance (Shirasagi-no-Mai), Asakusa Yabusame horseback archery, and Hanamatsuri or Buddha’s birthday. Also in April, in a neighborhood behind Sensoji, the Ichiyo Sakura Matsuri Oiran Dochu is a pretty procession of Oiran courtesans.

In mid-May, Asakusa’s biggest festival called Sanja Matsuri is held with many portable shrines paraded along the streets. In summer, the Hozuki Festival Hozuki Ground Cherry Pod Fair is held on in early July. In late August, the lively Asakusa Samba Carnival is held. In mid-Dec., the Hagoita Battledore Festival is held. For exact dates, see http://e-asakusa.jp/en/category/event

New Year’s worshippers approaching Sensoji.
Setsubun bean throwing on Feb. 3.
White Heron Dance on second Sun. of April and on Nov. 3.
Five-story pagoda and Sanja Matsuri portable shrine passing through in mid-May.
Hozuki Festival Hozuki Ground Cherry Pod Fair in July.
Hagoita Battledore Festival in Dec.
Asakusa Geisha Ozashiki Odori dance.

Asakusa also has genuine geisha since it has historically been a geisha district. They kindly hold free geisha dance performances in spring and autumn at the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center. (Video here.) Check the performance schedule here: http://e-asakusa.jp/en/culture-experience/5890

Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center

When in Asakusa, be sure to visit the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center near Kaminarimon Gate and Asakusa Station (Ginza and Toei Asakusa subway lines, Tsukuba Express, and Tobu Skytree Line). It’s in the distinctive eight-story building designed by Kengo Kuma (who also designed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics main stadium). You can’t miss it. They have English-speaking staff and brochures in English. The eighth floor terrace also gives great views of Asakusa. No matter when you visit Asakusa, there’s always something going on. A truly blessed place.

More Asakusa photos here: http://photoguide.jp/pix/index.php?cat=8

*This article is an expanded version of my article published in via magazine, the onboard magazine of the Airport Limousine bus in the Tokyo area and lobby magazine at all branches of Mizuho Bank in Japan.

Other Tokyo Temple articles:

Koganji Temple, Sugamo (Winter 2019)

Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple (Autumn 2018)

Asakusa Sensoji Temple (Summer 2018)

Zojoji Temple (Spring 2018)

Zojoji Temple

zojoji
Zojoji Temple

One of Tokyo’s most famous Buddhist temples, Zojoji (増上寺) is a major temple in the Shiba area of Minato Ward, Tokyo. It belongs to the Jodo-shu Pure Land sect (headquartered at Chion-in Temple in Kyoto).

Soon after it moved to its present site in 1598, Zojoji became the Tokugawa shogun’s family temple. A family temple is where family members are buried and periodic Buddhist prayers are held for them. With the Tokugawa being Japan’s most prominent clan during the Edo Period (1603–1868), their two family temples, Zojoji and Kan’eiji, were greatly expanded. They built grand mausoleums for themselves similar to the one in Nikko (Tochigi Prefecture) for Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun. Six Tokugawa shoguns (Hidetada, Ienobu, Ietsugu, Ieshige, Ieyoshi, and Iemochi) are buried at Zojoji and six at Kan’eiji (寛永寺).

Besides the mausoleums, a huge complex of subtemples and dormitories for over 3,000 priests in training were built at Zojoji by the mid-17th century. After the demise of the Tokugawa by 1868, Zojoji was greatly scaled back in 1873. Zojoji’s vast temple grounds were divided into smaller parcels now occupied by Shiba Park, Tokyo Tower, Minato City Hall, two major hotels, public schools, and other buildings. A similar fate befell Kan’eiji whose property became Ueno Park, Shinobazu Pond, and Ueno Station.

During World War II air raids, Zojoji lost many buildings including the magnificent Tokugawa mausoleums which were National Treasures. The mausoleums were never rebuilt and the Tokugawa tombs are now in a small plot behind the temple that can be viewed by the public.

Sangedatsu-mon Gate, National Important Cultural Property. 三解脱門 (三門)
Daibonsho temple gong. Giant bell with a diameter of 1.76 meters, height of 3.33 meters and a weight of 15 tons. Made in 1673, it is one of the largest bells in eastern Japan and one of the Big Three Temple Bells of Edo. Rung six times in the early morning and evening. 鐘楼堂

When you visit Zojoji, the first building you see is the huge Sangedatsu-mon Gate (三解脱門). Built in 1622, it is the temple’s only building remaining from the 17th century. “Sangedatsu” means to be released from the three earthly states of mind: greed, anger and stupidity. The gate has been immortalized by Hiroshige’s woodblock prints.

After this gate, behold a striking contrast between the Daiden main worship hall (大殿) and Tokyo Tower (built in 1958) behind it. Rebuilt in 1974, the Daiden Hall worships a large Amida Buddha carved during the Muromachi Period (1336–1573). Anyone can enter.

Zojoji’s Daiden Hall and Tokyo Tower. 大殿

In Daiden Hall’s basement is the Zojoji Treasure Exhibition Room displaying a scale model of Taitoku-in Mausoleum (admission ¥700, closed Tue.). Dedicated to the second Tokugawa shogun Hidetada, Taitoku-in Mausoleum was Zojoji’s grandest and served as the model for Ieyasu’s Toshogu Shrine mausoleum in Nikko.

zojoji
Tokugawa tombs at Zojoji Temple amid cherry blossoms in April. Admission ¥500. Open 10:00 am to 3:45 pm, closed Tuesdays (open if a national holiday).
Tomb of Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada and wife Go (Ogo). The left sign indicates “Ogo” and right sign says, “Hidetada.”
Grave of Imperial Princess Kazunomiya (wife of Shogun Iemochi) who wanted to be next to her husband. 静寛院和宮

Shogun fans will have to see Zojoji’s Mausoleum of Tokugawa Shoguns (徳川将軍家墓所). It’s behind the Daiden Hall and there’s a small admission fee. The Mausoleum has the tombs of six Tokugawa Shoguns (the 2nd shogun Hidetada, 6th shogun Ienobu, 7th shogun Ietsugu, 9th shogun Ieshige, 12th shogun Ieyoshi, and 14th shogun Iemochi), Imperial Princess Kazunomiya (wife of Shogun Iemochi), and wives and children of shoguns. A total of 38 people are buried here. Photos of all the Tokugawa tombs: http://photoguide.jp/pix/thumbnails.php?album=254

Priest procession for Setsubun on Feb. 3.
Setsubun bean throwing (mame-maki) on Feb. 3 at Zojoji Temple. 節分追儺式
For Setsubun at Zojoji, snagged soybeans and mochi.

On Feb. 3, Zojoji Temple holds the annual Setsubun festival when celebrities throw lucky beans to the crowd. It starts before noon with a procession of Buddhist priests going to the main hall. Then from an elevated platform in front of the Daiden Hall, celebrities throw beans at the huge crowd trying to catch the beans. Lots of fun and laughs. But don’t ever try to pick beans on the ground. It’s dangerous because people can knock you over as they jostle for the flying beans.

From late March to early April, enjoy the cherry blossoms around the temple. Zojoji has a number of other buildings.

Rebuilt in 2011, Ankokuden Hall houses a hidden Amida Buddha statue revered by Tokugawa Ieyasu for victory in battle and warding off disasters and misfortunes.
Inside Ankokuden Hall,next to Daiden Hall.
Columbarium built in 1933. One of the few structures that was not destroyed during World War II. 大納骨堂 (舎利殿)
Koshoden (光摂殿) is a lecture hall and seminary for “cleansing soul and fostering the vigor to live” as we face the 21st century. The coffered ceiling of the large hall has beautiful paintings of flowering plants, donated by 120 pious Japanese artists.
Kyozo Storehouse (経蔵) for sutra texts. Originally built in 1613 with the financial aid of Tokugawa Ieyasu and renovated and relocated here in 1800. It has an octagonal-shaped with revolving bookshelves in the center.
Taitoku-in Somon Gate is Taitoku-in Mausoleum’s only structure to have survived. Now at the entrance of The Prince Park Tower Tokyo. 台徳院霊廟惣門
Tokyo Tower as seen from Shiba Park.

If you have time, also visit nearby Tokyo Tower built in 1958. Although it is no longer the tallest structure in Tokyo, it still gives great bird’s eye views of Tokyo. Adjacent Shiba Park is also pretty in spring with cherry blossoms and views of Tokyo Tower.

Zojoji is a short walk from JR Hamamatsu-cho Station and three subway stations: Daimon, Onarimon, and Shiba Koen.

More Zojoji photos: http://photoguide.jp/pix/thumbnails.php?album=254

*This article is an expanded version of my article published in via magazine, the onboard magazine of the Airport Limousine bus in the Tokyo area and lobby magazine at all branches of Mizuho Bank in Japan.

Other Tokyo Temple articles:

Koganji Temple, Sugamo (Winter 2019)

Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple (Autumn 2018)

Asakusa Sensoji Temple (Summer 2018)

Zojoji Temple (Spring 2018)

Handa Dashi Matsuri 2017

The Handa Dashi Matsuri float festival (半田山車まつり) is held only once every 5 years in the city of Handa in Aichi Prefecture. The festival has a whopping 31 ornate wooden floats paraded on the streets near JR Handa Station. Handa is not far from Nagoya and Toyota. The headquarters of Mizkan vinegar is in Handa.

The unique thing about the Handa Dashi Matsuri is that although all the floats are religious, it’s not a religious festival. It’s just a tourist event started in 1979. The local Junior Chamber of Commerce started the festival to mark its 15th anniversary. From 1987, they decided to hold it every 5 years. So it is held on years ending with a “2” or “7.”

The 31 floats are religious because they come from 10 neighborhoods in Handa and each belong to a Shinto shrine in their respective neighborhoods. They hold their own religious festival every spring. And every 5 years, they all line up in a large parking lot for this Handa Dashi Matsuri.

They had to overcome many problems (mostly egotistical, financial, and logistical) before they could get all 31 floats to agree to gather together every five years. It’s a grand festival held only eight times so far. The one in 2012 attracted over 500,000 spectators. I believe it, there was a lot of people in this otherwise sleepy city.

In the morning, they pull and park the floats along the streets near JR Handa Station. 
Intricate woodcarvings on a float. They all tell a story, but I haven’t had time to learn about it.
This group of float pullers sat and sang in a circle. They were half-drunk.
Some float pullers had distinctive hairstyles.

From 12:30 pm, the floats started to gather at this large parking lot with bleachers (¥4,000 paid seating). Too bad the bleachers were all sold out for this day. Otherwise, it would’ve provided a great vantage point to photograph all the floats lined up.

For about 90 min., the 31 floats arrived at the parking lot one after another like clockwork in the specified order. Each float was introduced over the PA system as they arrived. Except for the bleachers, spectators were not allowed to enter the parking lot while the floats were arriving.

The parking lot gradually filled up with the 31 floats. Seeing as many as 31 floats gathered in one place was a spectacle I couldn’t miss. Especially when it happens only once every 5 years. The vast majority of traditional float festivals in Japan have no more than 10 floats or so.

The 31 floats would be gathered here for only 2 hours until 4 pm. I rushed to photograph each float.

After the last float was parked here, there were brief fireworks and much applause. Spectators were then allowed onto the parking lot to see the floats up close.

Karakuri mechanical puppets.

One highlight of this great gathering was the performance of karakuri mechanical puppets on several of the floats.

There was a great variety of karakuri mechanical puppets including swinging monkeys. Very entertaining with amusing theatrics. I didn’t have time to learn about the story behind each puppet performance, but it’s usually based on Chinese or local legends.

In the evening, paper lanterns were lit up to decorate the floats.
No cigarette lighters, just a bunsen burner to quickly light the candles in the lanterns.
Float with lanterns in the evening.

It was an all-day festival lasting until around 9 pm. It’s held on Sat. and Sun. and the same thing is basically repeated on both days.

Riverside fireworks.

There were riverside fireworks at 8 pm. These men are holding fireworks cannons (tezutsu hanabi) made of bamboo and filled with gunpowder. They last only several seconds. Fireworks cannons are famous in the nearby city of Toyohashi. The festival was well worth seeing.

More Handa Dashi float festival photos: http://photoguide.jp/pix/thumbnails.php?album=1022

Lantern Floating and Fireworks in Tsuruga, Fukui

Tsuruga is a small coastal city (pop. 65,400) facing the Sea of Japan. Best known for nuclear power plants feeding power to Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, etc.), Hokuriku (Fukui, Ishikawa, Toyama), and Chubu (Aichi, Gifu, Nagano, etc.) regions.

Tsuruga has this famous and historic beach of pine trees called Kehi no Matsubara (気比の松原), a National Scenic Site (名勝). The Tsuruga lantern-floating ceremony and fireworks are held here annually on Aug. 16. It’s a short bus ride from JR Tsuruga Station (becoming a Hokuriku shinkansen station in 2022). 第68回とうろう流しと大花火大会、福井県敦賀市「気比の松原」海岸

Map: https://goo.gl/maps/d3X2xZriaCq

Waiting for the train to Tsuruga to see the lantern floating (toro nagashi) and fireworks in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture on Aug. 16, 2017.
After getting off the shuttle bus, a walk to the beach.
Kehi no Matsubara beach.

This is my second time to see this event. The first time was in 2006, and the biggest change since then are all these chairs on the beach for paying spectators. In 2006, most everyone sat on the sand and it was free.

I was disheartened at first, but when I heard that the seats (or beach mat space) were “only” ¥2,000, I thought it was reasonable compared to other fireworks that ridiculously charged ¥4,000+.

It seems to be a trend in Japan to charge for fireworks, especially in provincial cities where there are fewer sponsors. In Tokyo, even the biggest fireworks are still free. I guess that’s why I’m not used to paying for fireworks. But ¥2,000 is not a problem.

All the seats are numbered. So you get a reserved seat like in a concert hall. This was the nice view from my seat. The free seating area was behind the beach and it didn’t have a view of the water (blocked by rest houses and trees). The lantern floating was scheduled for 6:30 pm.

This is where you could buy a lantern for ¥500. They sold 6,000 floating lanterns.

Lanterns came in red, yellow, and blue. It has straw base, bamboo frame, wax candle, paper, and matches. The lantern is printed with “Memorial for all ancestors” (先祖代々之霊位). You could also write a message on the paper.

I didn’t notice it when I took the photo, but this woman (maybe in her early 30s) wrote a wish on her floating lantern: “I wish to have a boyfriend within this year!!” (「今年中に彼氏ができますように!!」) Maybe she’s confusing this ancestral festival with the Tanabata lovers’ festival, but she’s got about 4 months left, so good luck to her!!

From 6:30 pm, people line up to float their lanterns on the water. Buddhist priests (not sure which sect) were chanting over the PA system.
People who didn’t want to go into the water gave the lantern to a staff person (man on the right) in the water.
The staff person tried to put the lanterns out to sea.
This woman’s lantern fell apart as soon as she set it on the lapping waves. No offense to her ancestral spirits I hope…
Fragile lanterns.

The problem was, many water-shy people put the lantern on the water’s edge. The lapping waves would then topple (and destroy) or beach the lantern in seconds. The result was many lanterns never made it out to sea. They crashed and littered the beach. So if you plan to release a floating lantern, wear shorts and go a few meters beyond the water’s edge.

Might be hard to go in the water if you’re wearing a yukata. She was trying to nudge the beach-bound lanterns out to sea. Kind of futile in this attire. Bottom part of her cotton yukata was pretty soaked.
Floating your own lantern is fun and cheap. Kids need to be reminded of their ancestors and to appreciate them. This is what the Obon season is about.
As it got darker, the lanterns looked more beautiful.
Lantern floating ended at around 7:30 pm.
Ancestral spirits must be happy to see this…
After the lantern floating, the fireworks started around 7:30 pm. (It was totally dark, but my camera’s exposure made this sky look lighter.)
Wide variety of fireworks.
Definitely world-class fireworks. About 190,000 spectators. My little camera’s Fireworks mode worked pretty well. OK, now I can agree to paying for my seat.

Great fireworks, lasting for about 70 min. Finale was fantastic. It seems it was more spectacular than usual because they were also celebrating the city’s 80th anniversary this year. Well-worth the trip. Highly recommended.

Free shuttle buses back to JR Tsuruga Station didn’t take long. Lots of buses came to pick us up.

Fuji Rock Festival 2017

Long lines at Echigo-Yuzawa Station for Fuji Rock shuttle buses.

Fuji Rock Festival at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata was held on July 28–30, 2017. Went for the first time on a rainy Sat. (July 29). Fuji Rock Festival is an annual rock festival held since 1997. It used to be held at a ski resort at the foot of Mt. Fuji so it was named “Fuji.” They soon moved faraway from Mt. Fuji to Naeba, a fashionable ski resort in Niigata Prefecture, but they’ve kept the name “Fuji.” I’ve skiied here in Naeba before, but the quality of the snow is not so good compared to places further north in Niigata. Echigo-Yuzawa is the closest train station where they had shuttle buses taking people to the venue in the mountains.

Long lines at Echigo-Yuzawa Station.

There was a very long line to ride the shuttle bus. Got to Echigo-Yuzawa before 11 am, and it took over 90 min. to get on the shuttle bus, about 40 min. to get to the festival site by bus, and 15 min. to walk to the main stage.

One popular way to enjoy the festival is to buy a two- or three-day ticket and camp out here. However, the campsites are on ski slopes and the flat places get taken quickly.

Some artwork. (Not a human rider.)
Spider with a gondola cabin body.
Main stage, named “Green Stage.

The main stage, named “Green Stage,” is outdoors for 40,000 people. They have several concert stages outdoors and indoors where many artists perform almost all day. This rock festival is huge in both area and attendance. Great for skiers in winter, but the venue can be a good hike if you’re walking in summer. Over 100,000 attend during the 3 days. Tickets are pricey too, like ¥19,000 for one day. And they sell out.

The main attraction for us was Jake Shimabukuro (well-known Japanese-American ukulele player from Hawaii) who played on the main stage. Due to the long wait for the shuttle bus, we were greatly delayed and got to see only his last song. But at least we saw him. He played on the 29th from 12:50 pm to 1:50 pm. It was his fourth time to play at Fuji Rock and the first time to perform on the main stage. He plays every other year or so.

We later met Jake and took photos with him. He was very nice and gracious. He will have a concert tour in Japan this Sept. 2017.

Jake Shimabukuro
This is an indoor concert venue called “Red Marquee.”
Red Marquee

Since it was raining, Red Marquee was packed. A British rock group called the Amazons was playing. They were good. Lots of overseas artists at Fuji Rock. Apparently, they are all good, even though not yet super famous.

Long lines at food stalls.
What would a major rock festival be without rain and mud?
Sign for lockers. Perhaps an intentional misspelling.
Next to Naeba Prince Hotel, communal hot spring bath for the campers. They pay a small fee for the camping site and use of the bath and toilet facilities.

Didn’t get to see everything at Fuji Rock. Too foggy/rainy to ride the gondola to the summit. Too wet and muddy to really walk around. So we left early by late afternoon.

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