The day in Asakusa begins with the tolling of the Senso-ji bell at 6 a.m. The temple bell, located behind two bronze bodhisattva statues dating back to 1678, is one of the nine official Time Bells of Edo, established in 1692.

In old Japan, time was measured by sunrise and sunset and was announced to the public by ringing these temple bells. Today, only two such bells survive, the other belonging to Kan’ei-ji in Ueno. Also rung on New Year’s Eve, the Senso-ji bell continues to set the pace of life for the local community. The morning service held in the main hall starts simultaneously with the bell in summer and a half hour later in winter. It is the most invigorating moment of the day when the chanting of sutras breaks the overnight silence in the huge hall as the smoke of incense slowly rises from the main altar dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist Deity of Mercy.

According to popular legend, the Kannon of Asakusa manifested itself in the form of a small statue netted by two fishermen. Emphasizing the deity’s compassion for the poor despite their breach of the Buddhist precept of the sanctity of all life, the tale propagates an enduring, wide-spread belief that anyone can be cleansed of their sins and freed from sufferings through faithful devotion to the Kannon.

Power of faith

It is the power of this faith that has sustained Senso-ji in the centuries since its foundation. Among numerous miracles attributed to the Asakusa Kannon is the account of a fire in 1808, which spread from Shiba in the city’s south and was about to envelop Senso-ji. In the pell-mell rush to escape the imminent threat, the Kannon shrine and statue were moved from the main hall. Just then, the wind changed direction and heavy rain extinguished the blaze. The local residents, most mid-flight, all turned to the packed-up portable shrine and began to give thanks for the wonder they had witnessed.

The wooden main hall was donated by the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, in 1650 and survived more than 60 fires during the Edo Period and withstood the great earthquake of 1923 before being reduced to ashes in the fire-bombing air raids of 1945. The holy image was undamaged, however, having been buried deep underground.

Out of the rubble of war, Senso-ji rose phoenix-like, with the successive reconstruction of the majestic main hall, Kaminarimon front gate and Hozonmon Nio gate, all in ferroconcrete. The flurry of rennovation projects, from 1958 to 1964, was supported through active fundraising led by prominent businessmen. The pagoda, completed in 1973, is a fine example of traditional Buddhist architecture executed with modern materials.

The wood block print shown above is from the 1830s and depicts people thronging the main hall to get Kannon paper amulets. Giving out these talismans used to be a unique practice of Senso-ji to celebrate Setsubun, an annual ceremony to dispel evil spirits. The crowd vies for talismans scattered from the high platform, while the senior abbot prepares to bless the next batch and servants toil at stirring up the air with big fans.

Observed on Feb. 3 this year, the contemporary Setsubun features bean throwing by temple-appointed toshi otoko, lucky men born in the Year of the Cock, the current zodiac sign. The program, starting at 11:30 a.m. and repeated at 1:30 p.m., includes a procession of abbots and toshi otoko, rituals, bean scattering from the balcony and Fukuju-no Mai (the dance of the seven gods of fortune), which is a tradition dating back to 1964. Later in the afternoon, the local tourism promotion association invites celebrities to take center stage.

Focal point of festivities

On the east side of the main hall is Asakusa-jinja, dedicated to the now deified pair of fishermen who uncovered the Kannon statue and the village elder who brought the discovery to the attention of the authorities. Popularly called Sanja-sama (Three Guardians), it is a Shinto shrine which was separated from Buddhist Senso-ji in 1869.

The wooden building, dating back to the mid-17th century, is another gift from Shogun Iemitsu, and is the focal point of the famous Sanja Matsuri festival held in May.

Senso-ji supports numerous other shrines dedicated to dozens of other deities who, in exchange for a little devotion, will grant any wish that you may have. Many are clustered on the west side, and here, too, many people are seen praying in earnest as they make a round of visits to Amida, Yakushi, Jizo and other gods.

Awashima-jinja at the far west end is famous for Hari Kuyo on Feb. 8, a women’s festival to express gratitude to sewing needles by resting them on cushions of tofu.

Nearby stands a statue of Ichikawa Danjuro IX, star kabuki actor of the 1930s. In his heyday, the city’s foremost theater was located behind Senso-ji, and to this day Asakusa retains strong links to the world of theater. Kabuki actor Nakamura Kankuro performed here in 2003 to universal acclaim, and enthusiastic fans hailed him again on Jan. 22 when he visited Senso-ji prior to his assumption of the historic name Nakamura Kanzaburo effective March 2005.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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