Senso-ji, Night and Day

When I started planning our trip to Japan, the idea of using not just Tokyo - but Senso-ji Temple in particular - to bookend our trip, started to appeal to me. I'd read the temple was great to visit at night, as it was illuminated and empty. (For some perspective, Senso-ji and and Meiji Shrine are tied for 'world's most-visited religious site'.) We could experience its beauty in peace when we arrived and then visit it during regular hours on our last day in Japan, getting some last-minute souvenir shopping done in the bargain.

Our flight to Japan was scheduled to land at Narita at about 3:30 PM. If you want a fast train into the city, the choice seems to be between the Keisei Skyliner and N'EX. The former would drop us off near Asakusa, where Senso-ji is located. I booked a nearby hostel to keep things as easy as possible for our first evening in Tokyo, as I figured we wouldn't want to do much more than eat and sleep after traveling so long.

Aside from my phone not working in Japan (despite having researched it ahead of time, argh), things went according to plan. We were able to check in to Bunka Hostel and get some fried chicken at a chain place nearby. It was raining pretty heavily, but we were feeling more human and ready to explore after a shower and food, so we grabbed some loner umbrellas from the hostel and headed out.

We walked away from the shopping arcade where our hostel was located, through little side streets lined with closed shops. Everything was so colorful and shimmery in the rain - and then we arrived at Nakamise-dori, the famous souvenir street. Even in its abandoned state, it made a neat walkway to the massive temple gate.

At the Hozomon (treasure house gate), two Nio greeted us. I'd read up on this type of statue before arriving and was delighted by the symbolism. One of the Nio - Agyo - is always depicted with an open mouth and often has a raised weapon or fist. The other, Ungyo, has a closed mouth and often holds his fist or weapon by his side. Agyo, his mouth open in an "ah," represents birth or beginnings. Ungyo, his mouth closed in a hum - "um" or "un" - represents death or endings. Together, they make an approximation of the "om" sound. Even better? The first and last letters of the Japanese alphabet are "a" and "n".

Stepping away from symbolism geekiness for a second, it was also neat to see the giant lantern hanging directly overhead as we walked through the gate. On the back side were two slippers the height of a person, to keep away bad luck. To our right was a clear view of Tokyo Skytree, shining blue.  

Senso-ji is Tokyo's oldest temple, being founded after two local fisherman found a statue of Kannon (the merciful female Buddhist deity) in the Sumida River in 628. Of course, like most temples in Japan, it's been rebuilt many, many times since then, thanks to fires, earthquakes, wars, and general sprucing up. The hondo, or main hall, was most recently destroyed during World War II. There are about a dozen buildings on the temple grounds, including a Kindergarten. To the right of the main hall is a Shinto shrine to venerate the fishermen who found the statue and the nobleman who spread the word about it.

You can skip the next bit if you're already familiar with religion in Japan... but I wasn't really before reading up prior to our trip. Here is my understanding: Shinto is Japan's native religion, in which spirits of natural places, objects, and ancestors - known as kami - are enshrined and prayed to. Buddhism came on the scene around 500 CE. For hundreds of years, the two religions peacefully coexisted, even became intertwined. Temples would pop up next to shrines to bring good karma to the kami next door. In the 1800s, the restored Meiji emperor ordered the two religions to be physically separated in a nationalistic move, and many temples were closed as a result. Since, the two religions seem to have merged back, something I'll discuss more in future posts. (Because we visited a few more temples and shrines in Japan. *cough* Afewhundreditfeltlike. *cough*)   

Standing at Asakusa Shrine in the rain, at night, was such a neat experience. It felt foreign. It felt holy. There was a circle-gate thing we had to walk through and paper streamers fluttering from nearby trees. Lanterns illuminated our glistening surroundings. We were in Japan. Monica looked around a few moments later and said, "It doesn't really feel like we're in Japan." I understood what she meant, having had that feeling in other places, but at that moment, I couldn't have felt more differently. 

After snapping loads of pictures, we walked back toward our hostel, stopping at Don Quijote along the way. What is Don Quijote? Informally known as Donki, it's a discount store with seven floors of anything you could possibly want. I'm a little bummed we never made it back -  being the first day of our journey, we didn't buy anything, but they had everything. Including two large fish tanks framing the front door, a funny trend we saw elsewhere. They may have even had the Kit Kat sampler packs, but I'll get to that (much, much) later. 

We made a brief stop in Asakusa again on our last full day in Tokyo. This time around, we browsed Nakamise-dori and its side streets. I picked up a couple last minutes gifts, plus some things for myself, like the wind chime I'd been waffling on for half the trip. (I ended up buying one with a metal bell rather than glass - I was worried glass would break on the way home.) I found a shop that sold small wooden senja-fuda keychains carved with your name. My name doesn't translate well and it was near closing time, so I got one with a carved koi fish instead. 

I also wanted to experience Senso-ji Temple while it was open. Monica was templed out, so we agreed to meet up near the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) at the southern end of the street. I walked around a bit, then, concerned about the time, went in search of the goshuin booth. It was tucked away in a separate temple to the left of the hondo. There was a monk doing calligraphy, something we hadn't found every place we went - some places sell you a pre-made sheet. Much like Meiji Shrine, where I got my goshuin-cho and first stamp, it felt a bit more religious, like I probably shouldn't be there. I wandered around, admiring the statues. Moments later, my shuin was completed. 

If I was doing Tokyo again, I'd definitely stay in Asakusa. It's got places to eat and shop, lots to do and see (we didn't even make it to nearby Ueno), and great transportation links to the rest of the city. Before meeting up with Monica, I grabbed two last taiyaki from a nearby stall. It was a nice way to wrap up my Japan plans, blissfully wandering through souvenir shops and stuffing my face with a pastry full of warm matcha creme. <3


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