We arrived at twilight. Travelling the scenic route, we had strolled the river path alongside the Sumida, encountering only joggers and dog walkers, to the soundtrack of gentle waves sloshing against the banks. As we approached Senso-ji, the dull roar of traffic and tourist chatter began to swell. On either side of Kaminarimon street, rickshaw drivers wearing straw hats and winning smiles touted for business among throngs of jabbering visitors waiting for the light to change. They were largely ignored, but still smiled brightly.
We crossed the road to Kaminarimon Gate, the traditional entrance to the temple grounds. This first gate of Senso-ji houses statues of Fujin-sama and Raijin-sama, the deities of wind and thunder, either side of a large red lantern. Sightseers crowded the pavement, half of them waiting to cross, the other half snap, snap, snapping away on phones and cameras. We ducked and weaved past the outstretched arms of the selfie-takers, under and around lenses, and slid through the crowd onto Nakamise dori, where we joined the current flowing towards the temple. Nakamise is a traditional shopping street that runs over two hundred metres, with smalls shops and stalls either side and down the centre, many open-face, with red paper lanterns hung outside. For centuries, the shops have sold street food, snacks and souvenirs to tourists, with many shops being run by the same family for generations. I can’t imagine thier ancestors could have predicted just how many tourists their descendents would end up catering for.
As we bustled along, I gave up any idea of having a closer look at their wares; though the alluring scents of freshly fried karaage, comforting oden, and sweet manju were enticing after nothing but airplane food all day, the shop fronts were packed with people, and the flow of pedestrian traffic would mean trying to move against the current, or attempting to burst through it.
Oh, well. It was our first day. There’d be plenty of time for shopping.
We reached the end of Nakamise and the road opened up in front of the Hozomon, Senso-ji’s huge sanmon gate, and for a few seconds, we stood to admire its eminance. The golden lights and vivid red paint gave it a welcoming warmth against the faded blue of dusk. Its form reminded me of the enormous sanmon gates of Chion-in and Nenzen-ji in Kyoto, which I had visited four years prior. These large wooden structures have two tiers, traditionally tiled roofs that tilt up at the corners, and are set on the grounds of buddhist temples. They remind me more of a small, stately house than a gate, grand and beautiful. However, while the Kyoto structures are centuries old, the Hozomon gate of Senso-ji is a recent reconstruction (many traditional buildings in Tokyo are, due to the destruction of original structures in WW2), and on closer inspection this becomes apparent: the paint and tiles look too clean. Still, it’s impressive nonetheless, and gazing upon it, I can’t help but imagine what life was like on this spot centuries ago.
It only lasted a second. A group of tourists brushed past me, and I was brought back to the present. Sightseers milled to and fro. In front of the gate, a European woman in a red cat-eared hat and purple dress, posed for portraits while holding flowers. Hoping to find somewhere more secluded, Jen and I decided to split up to take our own photos.
We reconvened inside the temple grounds. At the souvenir stands, a group of young women gathered to draw o-mikuji lots. Behind them, a group of elderly tourists, their interest clearly peaked by their colourful kimonos, began snapping a string of photos of them on their smartphones, not even trying to conceal the fact when the women turned to see cameras in their faces. In their traditional attire, they had become a tourist attraction within a tourist attraction, and clearly uneasy, shuffled off as quickly as they could, while the men checked their captures, smiles on their faces.
In the centre of the courtyard, a giant earthenware basin, a jokoro, stood smouldering from sticks of sweetly-bitter incense left by worshippers. This smoke is said to purify the body and relieve pain, and many worshippers waft it over their heads, hoping to heal mind and body. Unused to incense, I found the smell over powering, which got me wondering: if the incense gave me a headache, would wafting the smoke over me take it away?
The next stage is to cleanse your hands in the chozuyai – purification area – an ornamental fountain of a samurai, with ladles used to wash hands, a ritual which follows it’s own particular process: right hand, left hand, right again, but bringing it to your mouth, then finally tipping the ladle back and washing the handle with the remaining water. It had been years since I’d gone through these motions, and Jen had never practiced it before, so we both washed our hands slowly and deliberately, checking on those around us to see whether we were doing it correctly. Many others around the fountain were also international visitors with as much, or less, of an idea of what to do as we did, and it was one of the few cases where I’m happier to be surrounded by tourists: you stand out less if you do something wrong if other people are doing it wrong as well.
We lined up, threw some spare yen into the wooden offering box, bowed our heads and brought our hands together in prayer, then decided head off, our stomachs empty, and jet lag dragging us down.
There is a positive side to Jet lag. Jen and I found ourselves awaking around 5:30 a.m, and with falling back to sleep a distant possibility, we dragged ourselves out of bed and ventured to Senso-ji once more.
And what a difference an early morning makes!
We arrived at around 6:30 a.m to find Nakamise all but deserted, the early morning autumn weather as crisp as the leaves were turning. Each shop was shuttered, and they didn’t look like they’d be lifted any time soon. Here and there, a salaryman, rushing to work with briefcase in hand, would pass through. Everything seemed serene compared to the night before, the oppressive air of swarming visitors chill and cleansed. Blessed with space and peace, we ambled along, casually inspecting the beautiful street art on the shops’ shutters, the dull roar of tourists from the previous evening replaced by birdsong or the ticking of bicycle wheels pushed along by an oji-san out for early morning exercise.
Through the Hozomon Gate, a few fellow early-risers leisurely milled around, snapping a photo here and there, and admiring the architecture. We did the same. A European man wearing athletic garb, and no shirt, for some reason, seemed to be filming a vlog. He consulted with the man recording him about the previous take, then retreated to his mark and running from the incense burner to the camera began addressing it: “Hello, guys. Today we are at the Senso-ji…”
I wasn’t interested enough to listen beyond that (put a shirt on!).
Inside the Hondo (main temple), a chorus of monks had begun chanting their early morning sutras to the beat of a drum inside a golden chamber. Though their words seemed to make no sense, they brought me peace. Religon in a nutshell. Through the large windows we could see them, bald and draped in brown robes, sat cross-legged on the floor. Sporadically, more monks entered and joined in, adding their voices to the deep, relaxing chorus.
It was nearly 7 a.m, and the first trickles of Tokyo’s wave of commuting salary men began appear. Plastic briefcase in hand, they marched in with purpose up to the offering box to pray, probably for the success of their companies in the days ahead, then turned on their heel and left out of the opposite doorway, back to beating the pavement to work. At one point, space around the offering box was tight, but people continued to approach, with some casually tossing their coins in from five feet away, over people’s shoulders, or from the side; true Senso-ji locals. Inspired, I followed suit, like I’d been doing this for years, and fortunately my yen found its way into the box. Jen decided to go closer to carefully drop hers in. We bowed and prayed. Not much of a religious person, I kept mine simple: wishing for a good journey in Japan and a safe flight home (I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of flying, as such, I just don’t completely trust airplanes).
With space and daylight, we had time to step back, look up, and appreciate the traditional artwork on the ceiling depicting women and dragons, rendered with beautiful curves and colours. I also draw 0-mikuji to see what our future might have in store for me. Shaking a cylindrical tin until a stick bearing a number emerges, you then find the corresponding drawer to obtain your fortune. I drew number 13, which ironically turned out to be ‘BEST FORTUNE’ – Western superstitions need not apply here. It declared:
“Your wishes will be realised.”
“A sick person will recover.”
“The lost article will be found.”
“The person you are waiting for will come.”
“Building a new house and removal are good.”
“It is good to make a trip in spring and summer.”
“Marriage and employment are all good.”
Good to know.
We exited from the left door into the small, traditional Japanese garden: something I hadn’t even realised existed in the darkness and commotion of the evening before. In the morning light, despite the clouded sky, it looked verdant and serene. In the pond, under a sprinkling of fallen yellow gingko leaves, dozens of colourful Koi swam lazily, mouths agape, looking for food. The gentle splashes of the ornamental waterfall gradually replaced the chorus of monks, who were winding down their morning ritual. When they had finished, small groups of monks, chatting happily, retreated to the small wooden buildings in the temple grounds. On a bridge, the temple groundsman picked his weapon of choice from a tin cart and began sweeping.
I stood on the bridge, and as I savoured the crisp morning air, I once again mentally thanked jet lag for forcing us out of bed and allowing us to see Senso-ji, both literally and figuratively, in a new light. In the course of twelve hours, we saw both distinct facets of life at the temple: one of congestion, but also revelry, where one can delight in the tastes and smells, and also one of calm meditation and serenity, where we witnessed locals going about their day, the temple a place of worship, not a tourist destination. Which is the ‘real’ Senso-ji? Both. Though, I know which we preferred.
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