Japan Travel: Yanaka Pilgrimage – Hidden Tokyo

Hidden Tokyo: pilgrimage in search of good fortune.

Photo credits: japaneseprints.livejournal.com  

The relationship that Japan has with religion, and with spirituality in particular, is very peculiar. It is discrete, sometimes hidden, but it is an ever-present bond
made of everyday gestures and rituals. Sometimes, in particular occasions or in difficult moments, Japanese people pay a visit to this or that deity asking for protection and benevolence. Among the most revered deities in the whole country there are the ‘Seven Gods of Fortune’, in japanese Shichi Fukuji (七福神).It is therefore not unusual to find short pilgrimage routes in honor of these gods.

These seven deities arrived in Japan centuries ago and are the result of a slow process of assimilation. A process that saw Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Shinto blend together. Walking through a fixed course reaching the temples of all the seven divinities, the pilgrim collects seven stamps or inscriptions to commemorate the visit.
These pilgrimages are more frequent during the first two weeks of the year. In fact, this is the period in which, according to ancient Japanese traditions, the seven deities land on the shore with their ‘ship of treasures’ distributing gifts and good fortune to everyone.

Only in Tokyo there are more than 20 such pilgrimage courses, and the one we want to talk about this time will take you on a journey of discovery through Yanaka.
Yanaka is a small pearl dating back to the Edo period, set among tall buildings, shopping streets and the famous Ueno park. Its ancient heart has been kept untouched, and is often the destination of many tourists who want to find in the great metropolis a taste of its past.

Pilgrimage through Yanaka

Photo credits: flickr.com – Patrick Kenawy

This path through Yanaka starts from Tabata station, easily recognizable because it is one of the stops on the Yamanote Line, which connects all the main touristic spots of the city with its circular route.

Your first stop will be the Tokakuji temple, a short walk from the station.
As this is the first temple of the pilgrimage, here you can buy the scroll representing the seven deities that will then be marked at each destination.
This temple houses Fukurokuji, a deity that, as the name suggests, is the god of wisdom, wealth and longevity. Often represented as a bald old man with a incredibly high forehead, he is accompanied by a crane and a turtle, both symbols of longevity. Sometimes a black deer is also present. His statue is placed in the garden at the back of the temple and is open to the public only at New Year’s.

Although the temple is dedicated to Fukurokuji, the first thing that will attract your attention at the entrance will be two Nio statues. These two statues stand guard at the temple also giving their protection to the sick who ask for their help. In fact it is believed that they have healing powers. If you suffer from some illness, buy the appropriate piece of red paper at the temple and attach it to the statue where you feel the pain. The deity will heal you.

Here, you can also buy a map of the walk, to make it easier for you to find the way.

Photo credits: flickr.com – realitycheck2002

The second stop is the Sei’un-ji temple, also known as Hanamidera. As the name suggests, the temple was, and still is today, a particularly suitable destination to see flowers blooming in spring. This is possible thanks to the cherry trees and the azaleas planted here in the 18th century. The temple is dedicated to the god Ebisu, the youngest of the seven, god of commerce and protector of fishermen and workers, but also of young children.

Just a few steps away, there is the third temple of the pilgrimage, the Shusei-in temple that hosts Hotei. This deity, also known as the laughing Buddha, is represented as a bald man, with a round belly and a good-natured smile, who is often surrounded by children. Hotei could be associated with our Santa Claus as he brings gifts that bestows especially to children.
The statue of Hotei in the Shusei-in temple is particularly beautiful. Stop to pray at it, but also to admire the painted murals that characterize the temple.

Photo credits: japantoday.com

A bit more difficult to find is the Choan-ji temple, your next stop.
Here finds his home Jurojin, deity of longevity. Because of the similarities they share even in they way they are represented, Jurojin is often identified with Fukurokuji. But here is also possible to find Itabi, statues erected to preserve the repose of the souls of the dead during the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1336-1573) period. The Choan-ji temple houses three of them dating back to this period.

After this temple, head to Yanaka Cemetery and your next destination will be the Tennoji temple. It will welcome you with a large statue of a seated Buddha dating back to the late 1600s placed at its entrance. But your main objective will be a small shrine on your right. Here is housed Bishamonte, the warrior god represented with a spear and a pagoda in his hands, symbols of his dual nature. He is the god of warriors who punishes the wicked, and the association with the peaceful preacher Buddha should not surprise you. Bishamonten, also known as Tamonten, is also the protector of the places where Buddha preaches.
The second to last stop of this pilgrimage is the Gokoku-in temple, home of the god Daikokuten, deity of wealth and crops, but also protector of the house and in particular of the kitchen. A particular note goes to a small stage in the courtyard in front of the temple used for representations in honor of the deity.

The last destination, perhaps the most beautiful one, will take you through the Ueno park to reach the Shinobazu pond and the Bentendo temple.
Benten is housed in this temple, goddess of the arts and music. This deity is said to be happier when surrounded by water, which is why the temple is near this pond, and her symbol is a lute. Benten is also the divinity of knowledge and wisdom so, those who wish to succeed at work or in an exam pay a visit to her.
Although the temple is just a modern reconstruction, it remains faithful to the original structure and is particularly recognizable thanks to its bright colors. Dominant are red, white and teal.

Photo credits: flickr.com – Toshihiro Gamo

Here the pilgrimage ends, but along the way there are plenty of distractions that will make your journey even more enjoyable.

Along the walk

Photo credits: Japan Italy Bridge

Along the way you will find a myriad of other small Buddhist and Shinto temples.
Take a stroll through the ancient district of Yanaka Ginza, just behind Nippori station, and stop to eat something at one of the many traditional kiosks in the area.
Just outside Yanaka you will find the small Kyooji temple where you can still see bullet holes on its central gate. These marks seem to date back to the battle of Ueno in 1868, during which the Imperial troops drove away from Edo the troops loyal to the shogun.
Yanaka cemetery will then give you a place to stop and rest. A place of peace that will surprise you even more during the cherry blossom.
And don’t forget the Ueno Park, a little ‘green jewel’ in the heart of Tokyo. A destination renowned for its wonderful cherry blossom and the famous Ueno Zoo with its pandas.

Photo credits: Japan Italy Bridge

In the park, among other temples, there is also the Toshogu shrine with its pagoda, that is dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu. Between April and May it will also be possible to enter the beautiful garden that houses a small but impressive peony collection, one of the most loved flowers in Japan.

There are also museums and traditional shops, on a journey to discover a Tokyo that is a little bit different from what we are used to, but certainly equally fascinating.