In my recent trip to Japan, the mystic powers of the goddess of Kannon in Asakusa Sensōji drew me to visit the majestic temple. The oldest temple in Tokyo, this Sensōji in Asakusa is a symbol of the area as well as a historical icon of Tokyo.
The Karminarimon and the Chōchin lantern
Of course, the most famous and all; the huge red Chōchin lantern at the outer entrance of the temple, also known as the Karminarimon; is one spot for that iconic photograph.
The Chinese character on the lantern (雷門) directly translated to be “thunder door”. Actually it was more like a shortened version of (風雷神門) “Door of the Wind & Thunder Gods” which described the two statues that guards on each side of the Karminarimon.
There is another similar Chōchin lantern in the inner hall or rather at the real entrance of the temple itself, which was not as popular as the Kaminarimon’s. However, that gives me the opportunity to really sand up close and look at the lantern and also examine the bottom whilst the one at the Kaminarimon is crowded and surrounded by people.
You can see the names of the devotees who had donated the lantern written on the side of the lantern and the huge intricate dragon carving at the bottom.
How to pray in the Sensōji
If you are not restricted by your own religious belief, you are welcome to make a call with the deities to check your fortune for the coming year or pretty much ask what you want to know about. There are specific rules to follow though.
1. Wash your hands
Upon reaching the inner courtyard of the temple, head over to the fountain and scoop some water with the long scoop to wash your hands. While some devotees will take a drink from the sacred water fountain, the water is still pumped in from their local water utility systems.
2. Offer Incense
After your hands were cleansed by the sacred fountain, drop by the booth to purchase a bundle of incense.
The incense, unlike those used by the Chinese Taoists, are short and were supposedly used as a bundle. After placing the lighted incense in the urn, draft some of the incense smoke towards yourself to receive some healing blessing from the incense.
3. Clap your hands twice to announce to God of your prayer
Then walk nearer towards the temple steps, clap hands twice to pay your respect with a simple prayer or a bow. Clapping twice of the hands announces and seek permission of the deities’ attention. You may silently say a prayer to the Gods when you have done so.
Personally, I announced to Gods telling them I am here to offer my respects and also asked for safe travels.
Sensoji temple is also famous for its powers in answering prayers to its devotees through the fortune sticks and fortune talisman. You may head over to one of these booths to proceed to get your fortune.
It cost 100 Yen to use these fortune sticks. I guess the money goes to upkeep the sticks and print the fortune slips so I think it is pretty worth the price for the experience.
Unlike Chinese temple fortune sticks which you can see the different sticks, the Japanese version is hidden all inside the container.
*TIP* : Give the fortune stick container a whirl horizontally before starting to shake the container vertically for a stick to fall out.
I personally had tried these fortune sticks twice and during my first time I was so nervous that I started shaking the container without any caution and I got the same stick as the lady in front of me who was using the container previously. Thus, giving the container a whirl would prevent that from happening.
Second, don’t panic or get excited. Pick up the container and face the temple and ask your question to the Gods before starting to shake the container. Just like telling fortunes using the tarots, your heart must be calm and thinking of that question while you shake the container.
Keep good fortune with you and leave bad fortune behind
If you are blessed with good fortune (吉), it is advised to keep the fortune slip with you in your wallet for a good year ahead.
And if you were like me, I did not get a favourable fortune from the fortune sticks. Per Japanese Buddhist custom, if you had gotten a (凶) or ‘bad’ fortune, you may want to leave that bad luck behind at the temple so that the Gods may help you destroy it.
There are rails like this one below everywhere around the temple, near to the fortune sticks booth where you can tie your bad fortune and leave it in the temple.
The temple also sells many types of talisman for your individual needs (why does this sentence sounds like advertising?) Anyhoo, I was told before about the powers of the Gods in this temple and hence I got myself one for health and one for chasing my dreams.
Don’t be intimidated by all the Japanese writing, there is a picture with English nearer to the counter but I did not take a shot of it.
Shopping within the temple grounds
It was said that in ancient times the families who had helped to upkeep the temple were given permission by the temple to have stalls in the temple grounds to sell wares and food to the devotees, so to help these families financially.
That small humble beginnings now turn into a full scale tourist trap for the shopaholic tourist. Although so, the families still are the one operating the shops and stalls and many of the items sold here are still cheaper than the shopping malls outside the temple.
The long stretch of shopping lane created a colourful feast for the eyes with many cute and memorabilia items and if one is not careful, your wallet will “spew blood” within a matter of minutes.
I took the opportunity to walk from stall to stall to look at the things they sell and also the prices and I noticed a trend.
Tip: Prices are cheaper at the shops in the middle of the lane. Shops on the side lanes (not the middle one seen above) also offer cheaper prices.
Why is that so?
I guess that the two ends of the lane, one being near to the outer entrance (the Kaminarimon) and the other nearer to the temple are the hot spots or the prime spots in the temple ground, they attract the most people to stop and buy and the middle shops has lesser crowds due to the space constraints of not a corner stall. Thus the cheaper prices.
I love Kimono fabric wallets and pouches and after walking a few stalls, I finally found one with the cheapest price right smack in the middle of the entire stretch, same for some other Japanese memorabilia magnets and such.
I also ventured off the middle lane to the side lanes and the shops there too offer similar items at cheaper prices and also unique items not sold in the middle lane at all.
This Man with his wondering stall
Consider yourself really lucky if you chanced upon this man selling his traditional green bean cake. Dressed up in his kimono garb and a sumo looking headgear, he carries his stall over his shoulders selling his cakes around Asakusa Temple.
I already had a few friends going to Asakusa but had not spotted him at all. I considered myself very lucky.
I would love to describe to you the taste of this green bean cake, but since nothing fantastic jumps back at me, I could not remember most. However, it did remind me of Doraemon’s favourite pancake, only that it is sweeter on the pancake and chunky on the bean paste.
Traditional must-eats in the temple grounds
There are a few stalls which has been around for decades and these family-owned stalls were those pioneers who sold the same thing since they were given permission to do so centuries ago.
Kimura’s Red Bean Cake Stall
This hundred year old family own traditional red bean cake stall is very well known in Asakusa. They were featured in travel magazines and travel shows as a must-eat food in Asakusa Temple. I also happened to chance upon some Japanese themselves queuing up for this yummy treat! I guess it is not just a item sold to tourists but a genuine beloved food to the Japanese.
Besides selling in a packet of 4 pieces, which I did buy, they also sell them in omiyage boxes for tourists to bring them home abroad to share with their families. I happened to have tasted one that was brought back to Singapore by another colleague and I must say, this treat is best eaten while it’s fresh and hot.
The packet of four I bought comes in the shapes of their shop four significant icons: a traditional Japanese tower (the one I held in my hand above), a lantern with their family name on it, a pigeon that symbolizes peace, and a seal of a mythical beast, which is also a guardian of peace and wealth.
My 4 pieces of cake were freshly made from their waffle-like iron and when I tasted on the spot, the cake case was light-sponge with a tinge of crispiness. The outer covering is hot, but the read bean paste was cold and moist. The marriage of the two-temperature ingredients is just perfect.
Compare to the one I ate months later back in Singapore, brought home by a fellow colleague, the same piece of cake was spongy, springy and lacks that combination of crisp and moist. The entire cake becomes flat to the palette and it just reminds me of our local Singapore style traditional egg-sponge cake with red bean filling. Not at all exciting.
So enjoy the cakes there while its hot.
Asakusa Senbei (Rice Crackers) Stall
I love Japanese rice crackers. The crunchy salty rice crackers which we locals here loving called it “Wang-Wang” (because of the brand that sells) is one of my favourite, especially when it comes to my stressful period – aka examination time.
Can you imagine my excitement to see one stall that specializes in Japanese rice crackers???
OMG, can I bring them all home?!?!?!?!? Unfortunately, I can’t. The lady had mentioned that the Senbeis (Japanese rice crackers) stay fresh for only 5 days and since I have limited baggage space and stomach space, I cannot possibly buy them all.
They do not allow mixing for different Senbeis too. BUMMER~
So I decided to just try their most popular one… the “turtle” senbei, aptly named due to the shape of the rice cracker resemblance of the turtle shell (the utmost right side one in the picture above)
Although it is nicely roasted and salty to taste, it was much harder in texture compared to our “Wang-Wang”; and I mean hard, it’s seriously no-kidding freaking hard.
I guess when in the days when there are no fridge, this is one long-lasting snacks that monks could carry with them over long distance travelling.
I also have been told that these were also used as offerings in the Asakusa temple (as advertised by the gold words on the black board behind)
Asakusa Temple is a nice place to shop and eat, as well as a rich historical icon that one should not miss when visiting Tokyo. I would definitely love to revisit this temple again if I were to visit Tokyo again… To give thanks for a smooth year and to ask for another fortune slip to carry with me for the year ahead.
Have you had been to Asakusa Kannon Temple, and if you have, did you use the tips I have suggested?? Leave me a comment!!! If you have found other tips, I would love to know too!!
How to get there
2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito, Tokyo 111-0032, Japan
Asakusa Station (A18) on the Asakusa Line
Asakusa Station (G19) on the Ginza Line
You will need to get yourself to JR’s Kanda Station and transfer to the Tokyo Metro’s Ginza Line to get to Asakusa Station.
More stories soon!