Benten is one of those deities you can find yourself developing a soft spot for. She is the goddess of fortune and feminine beauty, she likes a bit of a song and, for a deity at least (as I was to discover), she seems like a game sort of girl.
The shrines dedicated to her are usually in the loveliest watery settings. Benten’s haunts include the islands of Miyajima near Hiroshima and Chikubu on Lake Biwa. Her shrines near the ponds in Inokashira Park and Ueno Park are two of Tokyo’s nicest spots. And, as well, the charming, wooded island of Enoshima is all hers.
Enoshima tends to live somewhat in the touristic shadow of the higher-profile Kamakura, a few kilometers up the Kanagawa coast. Kamakura is a place that, throughout the year, hauls in throngs of visitors hungry for its temples. And it is also the place that in summer hauls in more throngs thirsting for its beaches — even though they are dusty, gray stretches of grit and sand. The beaches on the mainland opposite Enoshima Island never seem to get quite as packed as those at Kamakura, and the Enoshima sand looks decidedly more inviting. But Enoshima and the nearby coast have something that Kamakura pointedly lacks — the spectacular hulk of Mount Fuji gracing the horizon.
Enoshima presents a character different to that of its grand neighbor, Kamakura, the capital of Japan from the late-12th to the 14th century. With its Great Buddha, imposing Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine and sedate Zen temples, Kamakura was built to impress.
The island is more intimate. It lacks the grand sights, but it has its own cozy character. Enoshima is a place for walking up and down narrow, hilly lanes and being thankful for the temporary absence of cars and trucks. The sea surrounds you on Enoshima and presses in on all your senses. You catch sudden glimpses of Sagami Bay as you walk around and, as a steep inlet comes into view, you see the fishermen below, standing with rod and reel on a rocky shelf jutting out into the sea.
As well, the air carries the constant pungent smell of squid, shellfish and prawns broiling over charcoal grills. The souvenir shops are packed with a beachcomber’s delight of starfish, coral, shark’s jaws, coiled nautilus, sponges and every kind of exotic shell you could imagine. It is also a place where the discerning shopper can find a rubber octopus, a pirate ship in shimmering mother-of-pearl and a pair of cavorting dolphins executed in lurid pink and green glass.
All around Enoshima, there are ample reminders of the island’s past. On the wall of one shop, I saw a black-and-white photograph of the bathing beauties of Enoshima in 1960 — a far cry from the sleek, tanned women in string-bikinis that loll on the beaches today.
There is also a private photo museum on the island, which has pictures of the place in bygone days. Prominent in the window was, unsurprisingly, a photo of Tora-san. Enoshima seems like a very Tora-san sort of place. Next to him was a picture of another celebrity, though it was of no one I knew. And the picture was taken in such a bygone age that none of the passersby I asked had a clue who he was either.
Other pictures seen around the island — in souvenir stores and tea shops — are in the style of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, showing Enoshima in even earlier days. A couple of concrete bridges have replaced the old sand causeway to the mainland, and the island now bristles with the masts of yachts in the marina. But unlike with most ukiyo-e, those of Enoshima require no mental gymnastics to recognize the older landscape from the scene today.
The most famous image of Enoshima, though, belongs to Benten. Most commonly, Benten is seen as one of the Seven Lucky Gods. She is the only female member of the outfit and is usually depicted with her lute-like biwa. The Enoshima statue shows the goddess with her favorite instrument, but without a great deal else. Benten is portrayed nonchalantly playing the biwa, as if twanging away on the thing stark-naked is the only way to do it. And she doesn’t even bother holding the instrument so that it might, well, do a modest bit of covering up.
Benten and her island go back a long way. For more than 1,000 years, there has been a shrine dedicated to her on the island. It is in the octagonal treasure house of the Hoanden Hall that the naked image of Benten is now located. The shrine was used by sailors and fishermen who came here to pray to the water-loving goddess for a safe passage and a good catch.
Any sailor or fisherman wanting to go up and do a bit of praying these days would certainly have an easier job of the ascent. It’s not that hard a climb, but a long escalator has thoughtfully been installed to trundle people up there from above the island’s main street.
That main street is the most atmospheric part of the island today. This is where the old inns, restaurants and souvenir shops are packed in together cheek by jowl. Here, you can feel something of the excitement of an old, bustling pilgrimage route. You climb up to the island’s wooded interior, view the broad cone of Fuji rising grandly across the bay and feel content in your decision to give Kamakura a miss after all.