Tokyo is full of history and interesting stories if you just know where to look and aren’t too distracted by the food, the fun and the shopping! I have passed these two statues at the famous Sensoji Temple in Japan’s number one tourist site, Asakusa, maybe over a thousand times but I only recently learned about the history of them.
In the first half of the 17th century when Edo was the trading and crafts center of Japan and the home of the ruling Shogun (Warlord) a struggling trader in rice took in a small boy from modern day Gunma prefecture and did his best to teach him about trade and commerce. Eventually the boy returned to his home town and started a very successful trading business. His old master though was not so lucky and died impoverished and destitute. The former apprentice, Takase Zembe, heard of the tragedy and ordered two huge statues of the bodhisattvas Kannon and Seishi. They were donated in 1678 to the memory of the rice merchant and his son. Both the statues miraculously survived the US fire bombings of 1945 and they are still in their original positions to the right of the second Nio gate.
But the story doesn’t end there, because almost 300 years later one of Zembe’s direct descendants, Takase Jiro who was the Japanese ambassador to Sri Lanka in 1996 developed a cultural exchange and partnership between the Sensoji Temple and the famous Isurumuniya Vihara temple in Anuradhapura, the capital of ancient Ceylon (Sri Lanka). As the Senso-ji’s pagoda was rebuilt in 1973, the temple in Sri Lanka dispatched its senior abbot to the dedication ceremony, bringing with him a granule of the physical remains of the Buddha, a massively important relic, to dedicate to the Japanese temple.
The granule remains in the pagoda to this day and I hope both it and the two statues representing the gratitude of a devoted apprentice to his former master will remain for many thousands of years to come.
I passed the statues a little while ago, and found them occupied by two birds who posed perfectly for the camera.
If Nara City in Western Japan is know for anything it is the Big Buddha and for the hundreds of wild deer roaming the streets. If there ever was a popularity contest I wonder who would win, the temple or the deer? Although I have never really had the time to focus an hour or so to taking photos of the deer it is hard to miss them just walking through the city and I took these snaps as I visited Nara a couple of years ago. Nara is one of my favorite places in Japan and I am always looking for excuses to visit. It is also a good place to base yourself for tourism to western Japan if the Kyoto hotels are full or the big city feel of Osaka is too intimidating. Nara is full of the old time small city charm even though there are close to 340 000 people living there.
One of the greatest tourist attractions in Japan is the Nara Daibutsu, a huge buddha statue housed in the famous temple of Todaiji in Nara City, Nara Prefecture. Apart from the big statue itself there are plenty of smaller statues scattered around the main hall of the temple. The atmosphere is fantastic, air thick with incense smoke, prayers bells and the sunlight filtering in through the high windows. Well, at least if you go off season and on a weekday. Weekends and high season tends to get quite crowded especially recently with the absolute boom in overseas tourism.
There is statuary of all kinds of materials, millennium old wood carvings, bronzes and clay to name a few materials. If you have the opportunity to visit, spare a few minutes for the “other” art treasures of the Todaiji!
It is March 18th 628 A.D., and two fishermen, Hinokuma Hamanari and his brother Takenari are out fishing in the Sumida River when their accidentally pull up a strange statue. The village headman identifies it as a statue of the important Buddhist deity Bodhisattva Kannon. The headman took vows and devoted his life to the preaching of buddhism and even his home was remade into a buddhist temple. This is the foundation story of today’s massive Sensoji in Tokyo’s Asakusa district and the background to the equally massive Sanja Matsuri attracting millions of tourists and participants in Tokyo each May.
To commemorate the actual spot where the statue was pulled up a smaller temple was founded, the Komagatado, that exists in the same location this side, with its back towards the river, facing west. The temple has been destroyed in many fires and wars, and the structure we see today was built in 2003. Apart from the 19th of every month when the temple is open to visitors, nothing much goes on here despite it being such a historic spot. I passed a couple of times in the last couple of months and tried to get some photos worthy of showing you, but alas, I think this historic woodblock print by the master Hokusai (1760-1849) is as atmospheric as it will ever get (see the last image).
Since the history of this Sensoji and the Sanja Matsuri ties in with this little temple and the festival takes place later this month I thought now would be a good time to introduce it!