There are various ways of travelling through Sensoji temple. Most people enter through the Kaminarimon Gate and move up towards the temple, but we decided to approach from the back. Through what seemed almost like a secret passage. We entered from the Northwest corner of the temple grounds, where you'll find some excellent restaurants and food stalls, away from the hustle and bustle of the main gates.
This allowed us to experience the tranquil, traditional areas of the temple first, before walking through the now, more commercial, shopping area that is located through the main Kaminarimon Gate. There is no right or wrong way to experience this temple, and although this might be considered a bit backwards, it's worth trying this alternate route.
We passed through the huge white sign with bright red kanji letters printed on it, welcoming us to the Sensoji temple. Along the stone pathway up to the temple were red lanterns. Inside each lantern, was a children's drawing and the set of kanji letters. I wish I could have read them, they were so quaint and adorable and added a sense of youth to this ancient site.
From a distance, the bright red roof of the temple popped out above the trees. The golden filigree sparkled, even without the sun shining. Even on such a grey day when the rain threatened to explode down upon us, this peaceful area was a brilliant sight to see indeed.
Throughout the grounds, there were dozens of women dressed in beautifully adorned kimonos. They were both tourists and locals alike. Kimonos are a very formal piece of attire so even people who own them, never really get a chance to wear them often. Visiting a sacred temple is an opportunity to wear such attire, so people take the time to dress up. Even if you don't own a kimono, as they are incredibly expensive, there are lots of shops around that rent them out so you can explore in style.. As you wander around the temple, these beautifully dressed women pop up like brightly coloured flowers in coming into bloom.
Surrounding the temple were several koi ponds filled with bright orange and black spotted fish. Koi fish are a symbol of good fortune and are known to be very lucky. They give the observer strength of purpose. For this reason, they are often found all around Buddist temples.
Make your way to the ablution fountain. There you'll see a huge dragon, sculpted atop a bronze pagoda shaped altar. Take a moment here to purify yourself and listen to the water trickling below your feet. This area is truly one of the calmest parts of the grounds as it's not the main attraction and therefore not overrun with tourists. Spend a few minutes here basking in the peace and tranquillity given by landscape around you.
Sensoji is a Buddhist temple first built in 645 AD, making it one of Tokyo's oldest temples. In the early 1600's, the Tokugawa shogun created the city of Edo. Edo's defences were the weakest near its northeast and southwest edges or as they called them, the "demon gates". Tokugawa needed all the help he could get to help defend them. For this reason, he created two temples in each location to help call on the Buddha to protect his land. Sensoji was the protector of the northeast and Zojoji was built in the southeast to ensure protection around Tokyo.
As you enter the temple, you ascend a long set of concrete stairs. Although the temple doesn't seem very high up, walking up this long set of stairs makes you feel as though you're stepping away from the mortal plain and entering another place altogether.
Inside the temple, the first thing you'll notice is the enormous golden statues, lights and flowers behind a massive glass wall. This is the central area for prayer where only the priests are allowed. One of the reasons that Sensoji is so popular is because it is known to contain a very mythical statue. During the Edo period, as legend tells, two brothers were fishing in a river and caught a golden statue of the Buddhist deity Kannon in their nets. They threw it back in the water but every time they would put their lines back in they would catch it all over again. They brought the statue to their village chief who built a temple in its honour. People came from everywhere to worship beneath the incredible statue. Although you can't see the icon today, some say its buried under the temple for protection, people still come from all over to worship here. Keep your eyes peeled for Asakusa's crest when you're exploring the city. It's a crest with three nets symbolising the nets used to catch the golden statue.
The ceiling of the temple portrays various celestial scenes of Buddhism. A nymph is pictured swirling among cherry blossoms and a dragon curls it's tail against a watercoloured sky. Perfectly framed against that bright red wooden ceiling.
There are shops on either side of the stairs which sell omamori amulets, scrolls, incense, books about the temple and omikuji fortunes. Something that I highly recommend getting is the goshuin calligraphy. Buy a blank notebook, either before you arrive or when you get to any temple. Find something special. Then, at every temple you visit, you can pay ¥500 to received a piece of calligraphy with a red stamp and the date written by the temple's priest. Collecting these becomes such a unique souvenir of all the temples visited on your trip. Cheap and meaningful as the money given goes towards the temples maintenance.
We opted for a omikuji fortunes on our first visit. O-mikuji are random fortunes written on strips of paper. You place a few yen into metal box and pick out a small wooden stick from an adjacent container. The kanji characters on the wooden stick will lead you to the box where you'll find your fortune. Luckily, since this is a big tourist site, the fortunes have a small English portion as well as the Japanese kanji. We received a "last and small fortune". Not the greatest results but not a dreaded "worst fortune".
We exited the temple down the centre staircase, which leads you to the main square. This is a great space to grab photos of all the surrounding buildings. People are usually packed around a large, copper incense burner which stands in the centre of the square.
Throughout the market and inside any of the shops in the temple, you'll find incense for sale. Feel free to purchase some and light it inside this vast burner. Many visitors waft the smoke toward any part of their body that aches, as legend has it that the incense from the temple will help cure what ails you.
If you look out from this place, you'll see the Goju no To, a five-storied pagoda. The pagoda is from the 10th century and one of the last of its kind. Inside, it contains thousands of memorial tablets, Japanese gravestones, and as such is closed to visitors
Facing the temple, to the south is the second of two enormous gates. This is the Hozomon Gate. Despite it being called a "gate" it looks more like a building. The Hōzōmon was first built int 942 AD, it was destroyed by fire and war many times over the years, and the current gate is the result of reconstruction from 1945.
Inside the gate are three giant lanterns hanging beneath three passageways. The largest of the lanterns is a red chōchin which weights over 400 kg. Beside the large chōchin are two smaller, copper tōrō. Tōrō, in English, literally translates to "light basket". These lanterns are considered an offering to Buddha and as such, are often seen as you enter into a Buddist temple. Flanking each side of the gate are two Nio statues. They are protectors, ready to defend their temple should the need arise. The designs of the current figures were made in the 1960's, modelled after famous sumo wrestlers. They each wear jumbo sized waraji straw sandals, and each year, the townsfolk gather to help create new pairs after the old ones become too weather worn.
After passing through the Hozomon Gate, you'll see a long stretch of shops. This is Nakamise shopping street. The street is over 100 years old and 250 meters long. The name means “inside street”, as the road is technically located within the temple grounds.
These days the shops mainly sell different types of tourist souvenirs, and although you might seem dubious to buy anything here since it looks like a tourist trap, I found that the prices here were more than reasonable! Shops like these have served up traditional Japanese food and local crafts for more than hundreds years. So don’t be afraid to pick something up! I’m not saying you’ll get the best deal, but by no means are you paying top dollar. This is one of the reasons I like going through the back. This way you get to experiment all the wonders of the temple, and then shops to your heart's content.
Alongside typical Japanese souvenirs such as yukatas and folding fans are various traditional local snacks from the Asakusa area.
Sweets in a myriad of colours are sold in pretty little packages, and all the stores are topped with bright red hanging lanterns which light up at night. If you venture down towards the end of the day, you'll find the shops all lit up, a beautiful site.
In addition to the traditional crafts, you'll also find Japanese collector items and children's toys.
Different foods are always on offer, and you can even see chefs making candy in the various kitchen windows along the street.
At the end of Nakamise street is the Kaminarimon, or "Thunder Gate". This is the main entrance for most people visiting, but for us, it was the last and the perfect bookend to the entire tour. The original Kaminarimon was built over 1000 years ago. Under the large, ornate roof stands two bronze statues. These represent the deities Fujin-same and Raijin-same, the god of the wind and the god of thunder and lightning. In the centre of the gate hangs a GIANT red lantern with the kanji letters for "thunder gate" written on it. Above the red lamp is a green plaque that reads "Golden Dragon Mountain", the original name for Sensoji. The contrast between the teal wood pickets and the vermillion red structure is something so striking. You can't help but shudden under it's imposing nature and makes you understand why the shogun designed it this way. This was his place of protection, and even without being surround by an army or soldiers, the structure itself spoke volumes about the strength and power of the empire it was made under.
After a long day, we headed off, goodies in hand. Ready for a long nap after exploring such an incredible place.