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.
Every year I visit the huge Sanja matsuri, or festival, in Tokyo’s Asakusa area I am sure to catch at least one new animal participant! So far I have seen dogs, marmots, cats, pigs, parrots and even monkeys. This year I saw this wonderfully well dressed little dog, loving the attention and the treats he was getting from the crowds that formed around him.
The tiny paper fan tucked into his obi at the back is a perfect detail. Sorry for the poor picture quality though, the light had almost completely disappeared when I took these and the crowds of people were blocking out what little light came from shops and street lights. If you want to see more festival styled animals, please see this dog here or these cats here and here!
Sanjamatsuri, the biggest festival in Japan, that took place a month ago is naturally famous for its crowded streets and huge amounts of people (nearly two million visitors on the main two days). One of the peaks of the festival is when the neighborhood omikoshi are brought up to greet the big Sensoji temple. As close to the stairs as possible, where dozens of police officers work hard to maintain orders and hundreds of volunteers do their best to direct the over one hundred omikoshi to enter the temple grounds, receive their blessing and exit as quickly as possible. You can’t tell from these photos, but behind the temple there is a several hours long traffic jam as different omikoshi converge on their routes to the temple and the neighboring Asakusa shrine. I managed to get relatively close to the main action and got these photos of the a few omikoshi teams approaching the temple. Some of the omikoshi are special children’s omikoshi, staffed only by kids. There are even different omikoshi for different age groups and I caught one of the tiniest omikoshi in the entire festival in a couple of photos. Too cute for words!
This is how you build a homogenous, well functioning society based on shared experiences, shared values and above all, participation.
After the big firefighter’s memorial service and exhibition is over, there remains one thing to do, the group photo! One of the teams took a prime photos spot just beneath the western exit of the huge Sensoji temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district where a professional photographer was waiting with some very heavy duty camera equipment. I wonder if the tourists idling at the top of the stairs realize that they will probably be in a photo that will be hanging in this firefighter team club house long past the 24th century? This team has been around since the early 18th century and will most likely be around for at least as long as that again.
Allow me to go a little philosophic here: surely, isn’t one of the reasons of life, of our short existence on this planet, to be able to feel that we are part of something greater? One link in a chain stretching centuries behind us, and hopefully centuries ahead of us.