Old Asakusa lives on

Asakusa is a magnet for those who love old-time Tokyo. Like a theater full of excitement and festivity in praise of old Edo, Asakusa Kannon Temple and the surrounding business district are vibrant year-round, attracting on average 35 million people a year. This two-part article will take an in-depth look at Asakusa’s glorious past and provide a guide to its current attractions.

A typical monzen machi, meaning a town in front of the gate of a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, Asakusa has expanded around Asakusa Kannon, known as Senso-ji, into a far larger area. Given the physical devastation the area repeatedly suffered during its thousand-year history, Asakusa’s ongoing vivacity is remarkable. And despite its continued prosperity, Senso-ji has remained a people’s temple true to its legendary founding by local fishermen.

The oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo, Senso-ji originated with a castaway statue netted by two fisherman brothers while fishing in what is now called the Sumida River. The date of this event is said to be 628 A.D., only 90 years after the official introduction of Buddhism to Nara in 538. The head of the fishermen’s village recognized the rare find as an image of Kannon, the Buddhist deity of compassion for human suffering, and enshrined it in his home.

Well-established by medieval times, the fame of Senso-ji spread throughout the Kanto region. Among the powerful rulers who recognized the temple’s significance is Minamoto-no Yoritomo (1147-99), founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, who requested Senso-ji’s help in the building of the great Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine in Kamakura in 1180.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, arriving in Edo in 1590, designated Senso-ji as his family’s prayer temple, granting it a sizable estate to contribute to its revenue. Successive shoguns followed suit with handsome donations from time to time.

Despite being a temple patronized by the elite, Senso-ji continued to be open to the populace, embracing pilgrims and sightseers, as well as offering services and entertainment in the temple precincts. The area acquired a reputation for nightlife when the Yoshiwara — the officially licensed red-light district — and the Kabuki theater quarter moved in from central Edo to the temple’s environs in 1657 and 1841, respectively.

Senso-ji in the 19th century

The prosperity of Senso-ji was depicted by the Edo artist Hasegawa Settan (1778-1843) in a 12-page piece, the largest in the whole book of Edo that Meisho Zue published in 1834-36. Shown here are three pages of the work, depicting the main hall on the left and the double-roofed Nio gate in the center with the pagoda off to the right. Notice there is no incense burner as there is today in front of the main hall. Off to the right of the Nio gate, a stretch of low teahouses are where the Nakamise shopping mall now stands.

The major buildings illustrated here were lost in the 1945 air raid of Tokyo’s shitamachi, but they were restored after the war using the same layout and architectural style. The pagoda has changed position, however, and is now located west of the Nio gate. The pine groves are also gone, mostly replaced by scattered ginkgo.

Notice two figures on a square base between the pagoda and the teahouses: These are bronze statues of bodhisattvas from 1678, which survived the 1945 air raid.

Getting around

Visitors to the area are recommended to take the following approach: At the Ginza Line’s Asakusa station leave through Exit 4, make a U-turn right and go left on Edo-dori to Komagata-do Temple on the Sumida River. When arriving on the Toei Asakusa Line, Exit A3 is more convenient.

Komagata-do, dedicated to the horse-headed guardian deity of mounted travelers, one of the many manifestations of the bodhisattva Kannon, marks the original gateway to Senso-ji, standing formerly on the threshold of the land and waters from where Kannon is said to have emerged in the ancient past. Because of this legend, the hall was originally facing the river, and fishing was forbidden as a mark of respect.

Cross Edo-dori and bear right onto Namiki-dori. The straight road leading to Kaminari-mon, the front gate of Senso-ji, used to be lined with shops and inns, forming the heart of Senso-ji’s monzen machi. Only the Namiki Yabu noodle restaurant has survived, while the others have been replaced by modern office buildings.

Once entering through Kaminari-mon and passing the famous large lantern, go wherever your whim dictates because there is much to discover.

Just before the second Nio gate, however, turn right to look for the bronze statues, the left one representing Seishi Bodhisattva and the right one, Kannon. These were donated in 1678 by Takase Zembe’e in memory of his master, a prosperous rice dealer in Edo, under whom Zembe’e had apprenticed as a young boy, but who later died in poverty. With his own business thriving, Zembe’e had these statues order-made in devotion to his former master and his son.

Nearly 300 years later, a direct descendant of Zembe’e played a vital role in enhancing Senso-ji’s prestige. Jiro Takase (1906-1992), posted to Sri Lanka as Japanese ambassador in 1966, was involved in the development of a cultural partnership between Senso-ji and the Isurumuniya Vihara temple in Anuradhapura, the first capital of ancient Ceylon. When Senso-ji’s pagoda was rebuilt in 1973, the Isurumuniya temple sent its senior abbot to the dedication ceremony along with a granule of the Buddha’s remains, a perfect gift to celebrate the completion of the new pagoda, whose main function is as a repository for the relic.

An old cast-iron bell has also survived in the temple from 1692. That and much more will be explored in the second installment of this article next month.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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