Ep. 061: The Asakusa Kannon: My Home Temple in Tokyo

Another of my "spiritual homes"

For over two years, I had the privilege of living in Tokyo's Shitamachi area, a place rich in culture and history, and located less than an hour's walk from the Imperial Palace, Ueno Park, and--best of all--Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, our destination in this episode of--


Shitamachi means "low city," to contrast it to the Yamanote, meaning literally "[on the] hand of the mountain," but meant to signify "in or near the hills." Much of the low area was originally tidal flats, or estuary, the actual meaning of Edo, which is made up of the words "river" (or "sea" or "bay") and "door."

As in many modern cities, the hilly area was for the well-to-do; the lowlands, subject to flooding, were for the more humble sorts, like yours truly.

The Heart of Tokyo

It's common to think of some place or other as "the heart of the city," but most world-class cities--like squids or whales--have more than one heart.

Many would identify the Imperial Palace itself--formerly Edo Castle, the seat of the Tokugawa Shoguns we met in Episode 018--as the heart of Tokyo. At one time the castle grounds sat at the end of a path between the spirals of a circular moat, to prevent large numbers of troops from marching on it. To this day, a look at an aerial view shows the remnants of this system manifested as "ox-bow lakes" and roadways conforming to the old system which placed the castle at the literal heart of the city's layout.

Luxury shoppers would easily identify the Ginza district as their "heart of the city," just as electronics shoppers would tag Akihabara. And Shinjuku is the heart of a whole other kind of consumption.

But for the Temple Guy, and indeed for many with a love of religion or history, nothing beats Asakusa. In fact, two of the three "city walk" guidebooks sitting on my desk right now place Asakusa and its temple, Senso-ji, in Chapter 1.

Senso-ji. Bottom: Kaminarimon ("Thunder Gate"), with Nakamise Dori ("Inside Shopping Street") above it, leading up to Hozomon ("Treasure House Gate"). The Five Story Pagoda is to the left of that. The Hondo ("Main Hall") is at the top; over to the right is the Nitenmon ("Two Gods Gate").

Chicken, Egg; City, Temple

Once upon a time, in a village at the edge of the Kanto Plain--but no, it was not "once upon a time" but specifically March 18, 628, as the story goes, and the village was Asakusa, then separate from Edo (now Tokyo). At that time and in that place, two brothers named Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari were fishing on what is now the Sumida River (flowing today just a third of a mile east of the temple's side gate) when they drew up in their net a two-inch tall glittering statue of Kannon (Sanskrit Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

For reasons unknown--maybe they thought they'd be accused of something, not being able to give a reasonable account of how they acquired it?--they threw the statue back into the river. Twice. But it kept showing up in their nets. Being simple fishermen, at last they took the image to the village headman, one Hajino Nakatomo, who promptly remodeled his house and built a shrine for this Kannon. In 645 he built the first proper hall of Senso-ji Temple.

I have read that scholars actually dispute how the statue came to be in the river: was it thrown there in a purge by adherents of the anti-Buddhist Mononabe clan, who tried to stamp out this newly-arrived "foreign" religion? Or perhaps it washed down from an upriver temple known to have been destroyed in a flood in the previous century?

The statue provides no clue--because it has never been seen by anyone alive today! Or perhaps for centuries, for that matter. It's what they call a hibutsu, a "secret Buddha" perpetually hidden from the sight of prying profane eyes. Even after the Americans bombed the temple (and the district) to rubble in 1945, apparently no one saw it. There is, however, a report of a "confirmation inspection" in 1902, as it hadn't been seen at any time in the Edo Period (1601-1868). One pious rumor even says that the radiance of the figure was so bright that the people buried in the ground! Another says that anyone who ever saw the statue (presumably after the original three) was struck dead.

I think I can answer the question of where the statue came from, though: the story is a fake! Look, the names of the three founders--the fishermen and the chief--are highly symbolic (though, admittedly, most Japanese names are). The fishermen's names mean something like "Flourishing Seashore" and "Flourishing Bamboo," and their family name "In Front of the Cypress Tree"--specifically the hinoki, a tree used in the building of temples and shrines, as well as palaces, noh theaters, etc. And the village chief? "Master of the Ground," family name "Center of Wisdom." Hmmm...

Not to mention that, not only has the statue virtually never been seen, but in that alleged 1902 inspection it was reported that the statue was almost eight inches tall, and that the two-inch story was a myth from the Edo Period! (There is a yearly "revealing" of the statue, but what is revealed is the nearly-three-foot statue that it's supposedly hidden inside. This is a known phenomenon, by the way: when some ancient Buddhist statues have been repaired, smaller ones were found inside them). This variation in details is often the mark of a manufactured origin story.

You want to really knock historicity for a loop? To validate the finding of the statue, "history" says that a great golden dragon danced down from heaven to earth, giving the temple its mountain name: Kinryuzan, meaning "Golden Dragon Mountain." (Every temple has a mountain name, a vestige of the old days when temples really were found on mountains. They may also indicate an organizational affiliation.)

Yet, this is almost certainly Edo/Tokyo's oldest temple; Buddhism was only officially introduced to Japan in 552, just three-quarters of a century before the little statue was dredged up. So here's my theory: small village + exciting new temple = growing city. This Nakatomo guy was some kind of early marketing genius, and both consolidated his own power (he owned the temple, for Buddha's sake!) and ensured the prosperity of the village by promoting this "miracle." As we'll see below, he and the fishy fishermen are commemorated in their own festival to this very day.

What's in a Name--or Names?

Before we stroll through the temple itself, and join in a couple of festivals, let me drop some more factoids on you.

Japanese is in its own way a wonderfully complex language. (Hey, I want you to know: I passed the Level Four government exam in the language--pretty much equivalent to being able to read Fun with Dick and Jane, which qualifies me to wax didactic on the subject.) One of the things that makes it a swell language to learn is that most of the written characters (called kanji) have two shockingly different pronunciations.

See, there was once an indigenous language in Japan, which called water, mizu, and mountain, yama. But it had no writing system. So it imported one from China, where water was called shui, and mountain, shan. Adapting the sounds to the local tongue (and allowing for the fact that the Chinese language spoken when they borrowed it was archaic compared to the one spoken today), and losing those pesky tones that make Chinese such a challenge, it is now possible for a Japanese person to see 水 and say mizu or sui; and when seeing 山, yama or san.

It's just a mile and a half from Sanso-ji to Ueno Park on foot. This bell--one of nine in Tokyo formerly used to sound the time throughout the day--is featured in one of Basho’s most famous haiku:
clouds of blossoms;
the temple bell:
Ueno? Asakusa?

Why am I dragging you through all this? Well, the two characters pronounced senso in the name of this temple can also be pronounced asakusa. That's right: the name of this temple is simply the name of its location, a word referring perhaps to the "low grass" growing in this salty and windswept place, in contrast to the luxuriant growth found further inland. In original Japanese pronunciation (or kunyomi), the temple is Asakusa-dera; in Chinesey pronunciation (or onyomi) it's Senso-ji.

But locally it's often called simply Asakusa (no) Kannon, after its location and its main figure.

Gate of Thunder, Row of Plunder

The Kaminarimon at night--about the only time you can shoot it without the hordes.

Senso-ji's Kaminarimon--"Thunder Gate"--is an iconic symbol of Tokyo. Its four massive columns create two bays on either side of an opening dominated by a large paper lantern bearing the kanji for the gate's name. The gate is over 38 feet tall, nearly as wide, and 20 feet deep. The lantern itself, nearly 13 feet tall and 10 feet across, weighs around 1,500 pounds! (That's a lot of paper!) The lantern can be accordioned upward to allow tall objects (such as portable shrines) to pass under it and when inclement weather might cause it damage--ironic, as defense against weather is one of the gate's primary powers.

First built in 941 CE, the gate has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The one we see today is only about as old as I am--some sources date it to my birth year, 1955, and others say five years later--after having been destroyed in a fire nearly a century earlier. (Edo/Tokyo was frequently ravaged by fire in the olden days; so common were they that they had their own euphemistic nickname, "blossoms of Edo.")

The front two alcoves contain statues of Raijin, the god of thunder, on the left (giving the gate its common name), and Fujin, the god of wind, on the right. The statues were almost completely burned in the 1865 fire, but their heads were saved; the rest of them is part of the late '50s restoration. (The gate is properly known by the names of both statues, Furaijinmon, "Wind-Thunder-God-Gate.")

The two alcoves behind long sat empty, but were occupied in 1978--the 1350th anniversary of Kannon being rescued from the river--by two more anthropoid statues, named Tenryu ("Heavenly Dragon"), a male Buddhist figure on the left; and Kinryu ("Golden Dragon"), a female Shinto figure on the right alluding again to the dragon that descended in the temple's founding legend. Dragons, of course, are associated with water, whence the Kannon arose.


One end of Nakamise Dori

Once through the gate, we find ourselves in a shopping street over 800 feet long, covered in inclement weather, with 150 stalls offering food items (dumplings, crackers, baked goods, and so on) and souvenir tchotchkes of all kinds: paper lanterns (naturally!), wind chimes and bells, chopsticks, traditional clothing, swords (toy and real!), and much, much more!

The street, called Nakamise Dori (meaning something like "inside shops street," as it's technically inside the temple grounds) has been a shopping arcade in one form or another for hundreds of years--something of a surprise stretching inside a temple gate as it does. The temple once verged on Edo's main "pleasure quarter," and at several points the street even offered come-ons for the various <ahem!> attractions, but these days there's none of that <wink wink!>. Like the temple itself, the street was destroyed in the 1945 American bombing of Tokyo, but was quickly rebuilt. Commerce must go on!

Once we've run that gauntlet, we reach another, much larger and more impressive second gate.

The Temple Proper

The five-bay Hozomon, with three lanterns

Unlike the Kaminarimon, the second gate has a second floor. This is the Hozomon ("Treasure House Gate"), and does indeed hold some of the temple's treasures on its second floor, including an 11th-century copy of the Lotus Sutra and a "complete collection" (the sign says) of 13th-century sutras printed in China.

The last ancient iteration of the gate was built in 1649, and burned in the 1945 bombing; what we see today was completed in October 1964, the same month Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics. This gate is 74 feet tall (nearly twice as tall as the Kaminarimon), 69 feet wide, and 26 feet deep. (The Kaminarimon's footprint is around 740 square feet; this one is 1794, almost 2.5 times bigger.)

The ground floor, has, not one, not two, but three lanterns: it's a five-bay gate, with a lantern in each of its three center bays. The center one is red with black script, similar to (but slightly smaller than) the one in the previous gate; the printing says Kobunacho, the name of the neighborhood in Tokyo's Nihonbashi business district that donated 5 million yen (today about 46,500 USD) toward the lantern in 2003, marking the 400th anniversary (by one reckoning) of the start of the Edo Period. That lantern is flanked by two nine-foot tall copper lanterns. Unlike the collapsible lantern up front, these three must be completely removed to make way for tall objects.

In the front of the Hozomon, the side bays feature our old friends the Ni-o ("Two Kings"), mentioned in Episode 027, making it the actual gate to the temple proper and its inner precincts. (It's said these two were modeled on a couple of famous 1960s sumo wrestlers!)

On the closed back of the two bays are two large sandals, not unlike the ones we saw at the Great Buddha of Kamakura (see Episode 020), and like them, are donated periodically by a city--this time, Maruyama in Yamagata Prefecture; the first pair was donated in 1941 (and destroyed... when?), but they've been donated every ten years since that Olympic year of 1964. They're nearly 15 feet long and five feet wide, and weigh--are you ready for this?--over 1100 pounds each! It takes about 800 volunteers a year and a half to make them.

The Five Story Pagoda, built the year I graduated from high school

Off to the left of the Hozomon as you enter is a Five Story Pagoda, at 175 feet said to be Japan's second tallest, and holding Buddha relics from Sri Lanka inside. Lovely as it is, it's a modern (1973) reconstruction of the one destroyed you-know-when (which originally stood off to the right), and is accessible only for those with business inside--that is, who have a relative buried nearby--so we'll hurry past it to get to the main attraction: the hondo or Main Hall.

The Hondo ("Main Hall")

Like the pagoda, the Kaminarimon, and the Hozomon, the Main Hall is made of modern non-flammable materials ("ferro-concrete"), and was not completed until 1958. It's big: 113 by 107 feet, and its sloping roof is high enough to be seen from quite far away. It sits on an enormous concrete platform (meaning we don't have to remove our shoes when we enter!).

The inner temple, where the "secret Buddha" lives and services are held in her honor thrice daily

Inside, there is beauty in every direction: straight ahead is the inner shrine, where the ornate golden cabinet (allegedly) holds the "secret Buddha." Turning around, we look back at the way we came. To either side are paintings and statues, and services such as fortune telling and the sale of amulets. And straight up, the coffered ceiling is painted with a grand dragon flanked by apsaras (like angels).

The central three panels of the Hondo's coffered ceiling feature a dragon flanked by apsaras (reconstructed from three photos)

It's a peaceful place, and we want to linger. We'd also love to wander the side yards, with numerous small shrines, the oldest stone bridge in Tokyo (1618), and yet another gate--unlike the others, this one escaped the bombing. It was built at Ueno's Toshugu in 1618, and moved here in 1642 when that shrine (which we visited in Episode 018) burned. It contains two "gods" (the meaning of its name, niten) that came from a different gate, at Kanei-ji, also mentioned in Episode 018.

The truly ancient Nitenmon, the only gate left standing after the 1945 bombing of Tokyo

But linger we cannot, because we hear the music starting...

The Festivals

Living easy walking--and even easier bicycling--distance from Senso-ji, I came often, for sightseeing (including night shooting), for prayer, and several times, for festivals. Let me share a few impressions of three of those: Hana Matsuri, a celebration of the Buddha's birthday which--that year--included an amazing "White Heron Dance"; and the Sanja Matsuri, an-almost profane counterpart to Hana Matsuri which celebrates the three finders-and-founders of the temple.

Hana Matsuri

Three scenes from the Hana Matsuri: The Baby Buddha riding on an elephant; a granny bathes the Baby; the temple Kindergartners enter in Heian finery

East Asian Buddhists believe the Buddha was born on the eighth day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunisolar calendar. When Japan Westernized after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, it moved most traditional celebrations to the Western calendar, so the Buddha's birthday--called Hana Matsuri, meaning "Flower Festival"--was moved to April 8th (coincidentally, the day I became a vegetarian over a quarter-century ago).

One element of that celebration is the bathing of a figure of the "Baby Buddha"--one finger pointing up, the other down--in sweet tea made from hydrangea flowers, a tradition imported from China to Nara in 606. The statue stands in a basin, and individual devotees--from grannies to the very young, guided by their parents--approach and scoop the liquid up with small ladles, pouring it over the statue's head.

At Senso-ji, there is a procession with the statue borne on the back of a huge white elephant made of something like papier mache. (A sacred beast in Buddhism, a white elephant appeared to the Buddha-to-be's mother in a dream before his birth.) Included in the procession are various monks, lay groups associated with the temple, and--my favorites--the kids from the temple's kindergarten dressed in traditional costumes from the Heian Period (794-1185) to accompany the herons.


Two scenes from the Shirasagi-no-Mai: dancers and the dance

The what? The herons. The Shirasagi-no-Mai or "White Heron Dance" is held on the second Sunday in April, and again in the autumn, on November 3rd (which is "Culture Day"). It was my good fortune that in 2001, the second Sunday in April happened to be April 8th, so I got two festivals for the effort of one.

Also dating back to the Heian--the last period of classical Japanese history--the dance was first performed at Senso-ji as early as 1652, and restored in 1968, the 100th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration. Herons, incidentally, are revered for their ability to navigate between the "three worlds" of air, earth, and water.

Eight young women wear tall herons' heads atop their own; white wigs simulate feathers running down to the girls' bodies, which bear huge white wings. Their faces are painted white, with red eyeliner simulating the herons' markings.

The girls with their attendants--a bird feeder with confetti "food," a baton twirler, and a person with a parasol who will act as the axis of the dance--process up Nakamise Dori, through the Hozomon gate, and--after a profound bow to the "secret Buddha" inside the hondo--turn left to an open space where the dance takes place.

It. Is. Amazing. Imagine something like a slow, stately square dance performed by giant birds, swooping, raising their wings, and cavorting gracefully in near-human style--occasionally pausing to "peck the feed" from the ground, all accompanied by live traditional music.

Sanja Matsuri

Two scenes from the Sanja Matsuri: The Kaminarimon is raised to allow the passage of a mikoshi; the yakuza protect the shrine.

And now for something completely different. Hana Matsuri is sweet and touching; Shirasagi-no-Mai is graceful and elegant. Sanja Matsuri, the "Festival of the Three Shrines," is raucous and potentially violent.

The festival honors the three men--the two fishermen and the village chief--who founded Senso-ji in the 7th century. Peculiarly (to Western minds, at least) the three are honored at a Shinto shrine on the grounds of the temple--sort of like having a Jewish temple on the grounds of a mosque.

On the third weekend in May, portable shrines, called mikoshi, are brought out of Asakusa Shrine by crews and paraded around the neighborhood. This is no stately procession, however. In the midst of 1.5 to 2 million visitors over the three-day event, the mikoshi, taking different routes through the neighborhoods, will occasionally encounter each other, and proceed to ram each other! (I was taking a picture and my friend Chika was gently trying to tell me to move; at last she body-checked me just before my head got caught between two of these one-ton, $400,000 holy objects!) It takes about 40 people to carry them, shaking and rocking them to release more of the "power"; around 500 rotate through the honor for each shrine. (I carried one once, a story for another day. Easy it ain't.)

What the well-dressed yak wears to a festival

Let's add a little color to this account--literally: It's usual to have people up on the shrines' framework to stabilize the "box" in all this rocking. At Asakusa, these people are not uncommonly men with tattoos over nearly every inch of their bodies, a fact made obvious by the fact that they're wearing nothing but a fundoshi, the diaper-like thong seen on sumo wrestlers. I have read that these men are yakuza, members of Japan's organized crime syndicates, and they certainly looked the part, right down to the punch-permed hair. But I was told at the time these were in fact carnival workers--a tough and shady class no less so than the traditional American "carny."

Anyway, Sanja Matsuri is something that every Japanophile should witness... once.


Well, that's going to about do it. Thanks for following me around one of the places where, like Tony did in San Francisco, "I left my heart."

Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


  1. Why do you think religious institutions feel compelled to make up origin stories that "test" well with their market? Isn't solid teaching on how to live a good life enough?

  2. Does a very secular shopping arcade belong inside a temple? How do you think the temple management justifies it?

  3. I'd love to know your thoughts--and more importantly, your feelings--about the devastating 1945 bombing of Tokyo. (Mine are conflicted!)

  • Subscribers: Although I have enabled comments for this post here on Substack, there's still a "Secret Group" on Facebook where your questions and comments can get more personal attention. If you're not already a member, let me know and we'll figure out how to loop you in! (Of course, if you don't use Facebook--sorry!) Oh, and Non-subscribers? Join the club!


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In the next episode: Join me for a "new tradition," my first-ever Friday Photo Essay, this time showcasing a few small temples out in the eastern district of Shenzhen.