This sidetrip to Sensoji Temple in Asakusa wasn’t technically in our itinerary. That day, it was late in the afternoon after our visit to Tokyo Skytree and our guide knew that the main shrine in Sensoji would already be closed, but she asked us anyway if we wanted to pass by right before we headed off to dinner, and we decided to just go for it.
Asakusa (浅草) is located at the heart of Tokyo’s shitamachi district, and it’s one of the places in Tokyo where you can bask in the vibe of old Japan. During the late 1800s, Asakusa was actually Tokyo’s main entertainment district; housing Japan’s famous kabuki theaters, as well as a read light district. Ironic since this is also the site for a popular temple in Sensoji.
After large parts of the area were destroyed during World War Two however, Asakusa ceased being an entertainment district and simply became a popular site thanks to the temple located here, as well as the Nakamise Shopping Street which is frequented by a lot of young people (by my observation anyway).
One of Asakusa’s most iconic and recognizable features is its gigantic red entrance gates called the Kaminari Gate (雷門) or Thunder Gate, as written on the large red lantern. It was erected more than a thousand years ago and has officially become the symbol of Asakusa (and I think Tokyo too). On either side of the gate are the guard statues Fujin-sama (God of Wind) and Raijin-sama (God of Thunder and Lightning).
If you’re familiar with Chinese words you might notice that what’s written on the gates “金龍山” can be translated as “Golden Dragon Mountain”, read as Kinryuzan in Japanese. This is the official name of the Sensoji thus if you stand underneath the red lantern you will see this amazingly intricate carving of a dragon. I rotated my image to get the dragon to stand upright. So very normal for the Japanese to have such attention to detail.
Going into the gates you will immediately see the Nakamise Shopping Street, which is basically a long stretch of 50 shops full of baubles, souvenirs, and local delicacies and street food. (I should totally come back here and do a mini food tour next time.) At the end of this lane are the main grounds of the Sensoji Temple.
When we arrived at Nakamise the shops were already winding down for the day. Most shops in Japan close really early (which honestly provides a stark contrast to Hong Kong’s city nightlife!) and we were heading off to dinner anyway so I didn’t really stop to buy any food anymore. I just walked straight towards Sensoji Temple.
Following the Nakamise Shopping street will lead you from Kaminarimon to the second gate called Hozomon (宝蔵門). It’s also quite large and quite red.
Apart from its guard statues, on the other side there are also a pair of giant waraji straw sandals hanging on the other side of the gate. Apparently these are made by roughly 800 people from Maruyama as thanks for engaging one of their own to be the sculptor of the guard statues for the Hozomon.
The temple’s main hall (Hondo) can immediately be spotted the moment you enter the gates. Interesting fact about Sensoji (浅草寺) is that it is a conjugation of two words: “senso” is actually an alternate way of saying “Asakusa”; while “ji” is short for jingo or temple. Calling it Sensoji Temple is in essence a little redundant, but it’s been known as such for a long time so let’s just roll with it!
Sensoji is said to be Tokyo’s most popular Buddhist temple. And it’s also the oldest one built in honor of Kannon (Buddhist Goddess of Mercy). Legend has it that the decision to build the temple was made after a statue of the goddess was found by two brothers fishing at the nearby Sumida River, and no matter how many times they returned it to the river it simply kept reappearing.
In the temple grounds is the Goju No To (five-storey pagoda). Pagodas this high is rare in Japan, and this one houses memorial tablets of thousands of people, presumably dating back to the 10th century. It’s basically a very pretty graveyard of sorts. These structures were reconstructed after being destroyed in the war. The temple buildings look very new to me actually, so I’m guessing plenty of work has been done to this area to maintain it. The main hall was already closed, but if you do get the chance go! I’ll be visiting it hopefully another time.
Asakusa holds a ton of festivals in this area, and I would love to be able to experience at least one someday. Some of my friends just joined one some days ago which really makes me envy them! Haha!
Asakusa also holds another shrine, simply named the Asakusa Shrine, not to be confused with the Sensjoi Temple which is also known as the Asakusa Kannon Temple. At first I was a little confused as well because everything was just known as Asakusa Shrine to me! The Asakusa Shrine is a Shinto shrine actually, so of course the easiest way to spot it (or any Shinto shrine really) is to look for the torii gate. The shrine is also one of the most popular Shinto shrines in Tokyo, and it is known alternatively as the Shrine of the Three Gods.
The Asakusa Shrine actually honors the three men who founded the Sensoji, the first two being the brothers who had fished out the statue of Kannon from the Sumida River. The third man is a wealthy landlord who approached the brothers and delivered a sermon to them about the goddess Kannon and Buddhism. The two brothers were so inspired that they converted to Buddhism and the three of them consecrated the statue at a small temple that is today the very grand Sensoji. It was because of them that the Sensoji exists and so the Asakusa Shrine was built so that the three men may have a place to be worshipped as deities.
Discussing the difference between Buddhism and Shintoism can be quite complex and should be reserved for the experts. But on a very basic level, Shintoism is a religion that is indigenous to Japan. Shintoism basically teaches that every object in the world has a spirit, which is how in Shintoism there are specific gods for specific things. It’s interesting how in Shintoism they have all these different types of rituals for specific purposes. On the other hand, Buddhism is mostly about studying Buddha’s principles and teachings, following a particular code of conduct in one’s life, and how meditation can help you achieve some sort of enlightenment. I know. World Theology’s a tough subject! But it seems like these two temples are co-existing rather well.
Well that’s it for my Asakusa Diary. I know it’s quite wordy but this place is so interesting and so full of stories! Pretty sure I’ll be back next time to take some better pictures, AND to focus on the Nakamise Shopping Street as well as the main temple itself.