One of the most famous “Temple Shrines” (temples that also functioned as shrines – it is a long a complicated story about the role of Japan’s two major religions Buddhism and Shinto) in Tokyo is the Toyokawa Inari Tokyo Betsuin in Tokyo’s Moto Akasaka district (near both Nagatacho stations and the famous Akasaka Mitsuke stations). Erected as a branch office of the main Toyokawa Inari in Aichi Prefecture, it has been tremendously popular from the day it was opened in 1828 to this day. During the years after its founding, the temple shrine was moved and the buildings rearranged, one of them being one of my favorite buildings in Tokyo; the tiny Okunoin (奥の院). It looks very much like an ordinary shrine from the outside, except that it is strikingly white (which is quite unusual), but on the inside it looks like any rural temple complete with buddhist art and statues. During the Hatsumode season this year (early January) the Okunoin building was opened to the public and I got my first chance to poke around outside. I would have loved to spend more time in here but lots of people were lining up outside waiting to get in so I had to be quick with my camera.
The Tokyokawa Inari Bestuin is very popular with celebrities and if you have a chance it is a great spot to go for the New Year’s celebrations, from about half an hour before midnight on the 31st to the Coming of Age day in early January.
This year I visited the famous Kanda Myojin Shrine near Akhibara for hatsumode – the first visit to a shrine of the year – pretty early in the day. Lots of people and the obligatory new year’s lion dance. I have seen dozens of lion dancers throughout my years living in Tokyo but the dancers of this troupe is by far the best so far. The most endearing part of this tradition is when they hold up the little kids to have their heads “bitten” by the lions, which is supposed to make for strong healthy children. The bravest ones go through it with a smile but the smaller kids often cry fiercely at the prospect, obviously these kids get the biggest cheers of approval from the sympathetic audience.
My goal for every New Year’s is to perform my Hatsumode at three shrines before the rise of morning sun. Personally I don’t ask for anything when I pray at these shrines, I just express gratitude for being alive and in good health to see the start of a new year, and to pay my respects for the coming year. The last of the three shrines I visited this year was right in line with the large Yasukuni Shrine and the tiny Tsukudo Shrine, it was in fact the parent shrine of that last little shrine, the hill top Tsukudohachiman Shrine (筑土八幡神社). It’s origins have been lost in time and war, but the original shrine was inaugurated here sometime between 809 AD and 823 AD, after an old man in the area claimed to have heard from the god Hachiman in this spot. In 1945 AD the shrine was completely destroyed by the US Air Force in one of the many raids of that year, only the Torii (built in 1726), the gate, remained mostly unharmed from shrapnel and fire and it is today the oldest Torii in Shinjuku ward. I didn’t get a good photo of it unfortunately.
Walking towards Iidabashi Station from Yasukuni Shrine you will encounter two more shrines on the side street, one of which is the very famous and hugely popular Tokyo Daijingu, the other one being the almost completely hidden tiny little Tsukudo Shrine, nestled inside and underneath one of the many tall office buildings in the area. It might not look like much to the world but it has a long and proud history, having been founded in June 940 A.D., almost 1075 years ago. It was moved to the present location after having been damaged in World War 2. The shrine today consists of a brand new torii gate, a main shrine building and a smaller inari shrine to the side. You’ll need a good map and a keen eye to find it!