Sensouji Temple – Asakusa, Tokyo

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For those with any Kanji sense, you’ll notice the Chinese characters for both Asakusa and Sensouji Temple are exactly the same. So, for those less familiar with the Japanese language you may be wondering how the same word could be read in a completely different way. That is because the symbols or characters used in the Japanese usually have 2 or more ways of reading them. So, this is one of the most widely seen examples.

It is, of course, one of the most famous and visited temples, naturally being in the heart of Tokyo. Plus, as Asakusa is the cultural capital of Tokyo’s various districts offering more of a traditional feel. This can be felt through its ancient architecture, but also through its various streets and abundance of jin-rickshaws available.

Sensouji is actually related directly to war, with the use of 浅草 or ‘Sensou’ directly translating into the ‘War’ in Japanese. However, it’s actual intention is to symbolise rebirth and peace, particularly after it was rebuilt from the aftermath of WWII.

The temple grounds also consist of a Shinto Shrine and Pagoda located next to Sensouji. Beyond the inner gate of Hozuomon or ‘Treasure House Gate’ lies the famous Nakamise-dori. This street is full of a large variety of souvenir shops, including sweets, clothes, small gifts and more. At the outer entrance is the instagrammable Kaminarimon or ‘Thunder Gate’ (雷門) that sits out on Kaminarimon Dori (Street).

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PRO TIP: We recommend you avoid the crowds during the daytime and take advantage of the lit-up temple at night. Unfortunately, most of the souvenir stores are closed at this time, but most of the crowds disappear also. Hence it is the perfect time for a more exclusive shot, and in illuminated form is far superior than those daytime shots.

Sensouji’s History

Sensouji actually originates back to 628, making it Tokyo’s oldest standing Temple. Yet, the attraction of Sensouji is not only limited to its age and symbolism. The surrounding area of the temple is also worth highlighting.

The legend tells the story of two fishermen who discover the remains of a statue of Kannon in the Sumida River around 628. As a result, the mayor realised the reverence of the statue and decided to remodel his home into a small temple where people could worship the sacred statue. In 645, the mayor completed the remodelling of his home, and local villagers came to pray and worship the temple.

It was levelled during World War II in 1945 as part of the March air raids which devastated large parts of Tokyo. It became independent after the bombing and was then rebuilt as an independent temple.

Features

The temple itself continues to house the statue of Kannon, as per the legends. The surrounding grounds also feature a privately maintained garden, Shinto shrine and pagoda.

The main festival that occurs on the temple grounds is Sanja Matsuri which occurs over a period of several days in spring. Usually on the third weekend of May. During this time, the surrounding streets are closed throughout the day. The festival actually celebrates the original founders of the temple and consists of three key mikoshi (portable shrines). There is a lot of worshipping as the shrines are paraded through the crowds, as well as traditional singing and dancing.

The grounds are also full of small o-mikuji stands, which allow you access to the holy oracles with questions of future luck and fortune. The average donation of 100 yen, allows you to receive a piece of paper from 100 possible responses, that supposedly determine your luck for the near future.

Hozoumon

The large structure that sits in front of the main Sensouji Temple and is one of two large gates that preceded the main building. This large structure is called ‘Hozoumon’ the inner gate. While the outermost gate ‘Kaminarimon’ sits at the entrance to Nakamise.

The two-story gate sits at almost 23 metres tall and 21 metres wide, at a depth of 8 metres. It also holds some of the prized possessions including two statues, three lanterns and two large sandals. 

The Houzoumon features two guardian statues on either side of the south-facing section of the gate. The statues represent the guardian spirits of Budda and stand at over 5 metres tall. Another major aspect of the gate is the three large lanterns, with the largest of these a large red lantern in the centre.

The gate was originally built in 942, burnt down in a blaze in 1631, rebuilt in 1636. It then stood for another 300 years until WWII when it suffered the same fate as Sensouji. It was reconstructed again in 1964, from a single donation, this time the gate comprised concrete over a reinforced steel frame for increased strength and durability.

Kaminarimon

The outer of the two gates is perhaps the most well-known, Kaminarimon or ‘Thunder Gate’ stands out as the entrance on Kaminarimon Dori. It is also the entrance to Nakamise-Dori and Sensouji on Kaminarimon Dori (street). The gate was erected initially in 941, and in an entirely different location. Now, its most recent incarnation was built in 1960.

The outer gate is also dwarfed by the inner gate, at almost half the size. It measures some 11.7 metres high and 11.4m wide, but it still is one of the most frequently photographed spots in Asakusa.

The gate has had a rough past too, being burnt down several times. Its current structure features fire-resistant material in a bid to prolong its longevity. It was burnt down many times, with the latest being 1865. The current version has been standing tall since 1960 and hopefully will stay there for some time.

The Kaminarimon has 4 separate statues on display, 2 on the front of the gate and the remaining 2 on the back. At the front, the Shinto gods of Fujin and Raijin appear. Fujin is the god of wind and located on the eastern side, while Raijin the god of thunder is to the west. On the opposite facing side, are an additional two statues. The most prominent feature of the gate is perhaps the large lantern that hangs from the thunder gate. It weighs in at almost 700kgs almost 4 metres tall and over 3 metres wide. The metallic base is the same used in the previous version of the lantern attached to this gate.

Nakamise-Dori

The street full of odd and traditional style stores that leads up to Sensouji is called Nakamise-Dori (street). They continue to serve as tradition, selling to those pilgrims who still make the journey to Sensouji. The history of this famous street has had a similar fate to that of Kaminarimon, being destroyed several times. First, in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, then after the devastation of bombing from World War II. All stores now are made from concrete and were remodelled on their image of western-style outlets.

The stores themselves contain a large and diverse range of souvenirs. They contain some typical traditional types of goods like fans, wooden blocks, kimonos, yukata and other robes. In addition, you can also find a broad range of Godzilla toys, Buddhist scrolls, sweets, t-shirts and more. Definitely, worth a visit for something to remember your visit to Asakusa, if you are so inclined.

Oshogatsu

The site is so popular in that it attracts both international and local visitors to a tune of over 30 million per year. Especially, during the new year period, which is one of the key celebrations for families per Japanese tradition. Late on the 31st of December people will start to line up to make their prayers heard for the year or years ahead. This will continue for the next several days as people visit this spiritual location in search of good health and fortune.

Access

Asakusa has several stations surrounding the major temple, with many locations within walking distance. From Asakusa station, on both the Asakusa or Ginza lines, it will take you a little over 5 minutes to reach the major temple. From the Tsukuba Express line, it will take approximately the same time. If you are coming from Tawaramachi station on the Ginza line, it may take you closer to 10 minutes. You could also walk from Kuramae on the Oedo/Askusa lines, but this will take you 15 minutes or more on foot.

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