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Sensō-ji Temple

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Tokyo’s oldest temple is the Sensō-ji, constructed in the year 645. Like almost everything else in this city plagued by earthquakes and fire, it’s been rebuilt multiple times, but has always been an important place of worship.

A visit to Sensō-ji begins through the Kaminari-mon, a large gate protected on either side by wooden representations of the gods of thunder and wind. Past these formidable guardians is the Nakamise-dōri Shopping Street. The vendors of this teeming market sell every kind of souvenir imaginable, from key chains to ninja costumes, as well as a wide variety of traditional sweets, treats, teas and ice cream.

It may seem strange for the path leading to an important temple to be so secular and commercial, but that’s because the rulers of Tokyo haven’t always looked upon Sensō;-ji with deference. During the Meiji Restoration, officials made a concentrated effort to reduce the influence of Buddhism, and encouraged the city’s seedier elements to set up shop in Asakusa, and particularly along Nakamise-dōri. The street became a home to prostitution and gambling, which wasn’t entirely troubling to the temple’s monks, many of whom reportedly enjoyed exactly such vices.

Nakamise-dōri has cleaned up its act considerably. Today, the most sinful thing being sold here are taiyaki, delicious fish-shaped cookies filled with chocolate. It’s not a bad idea to eat a few, because you’ll need the energy while visiting Sensō-ji. The temple is huge, with grounds that include multiple shrines, the Hondo (main hall), a five-story pagoda, statues, gates, a museum and even a Japanese garden.

Let’s have a word about that garden. After an hour spent walking around the Sensō-ji, we’d had enough of incense and crowds and were preparing to leave. But then we saw a sign advertising the “Temple Museum with Attached Japanese Garden,” in a building near the western exit. Having just completed a comprehensive exploration of the temple, we agreed there was simply no space for a garden. “It’s going to be a few plants in the corner… max.”

The museum was magnificent, much better than expected, with wood carvings and scrolls, along with paintings of samurai and strange demon gods. And then we emerged into the garden. I still don’t understand it. The place was huge… a real park! A long circular path led past a pond, a tea garden complete with monk serving tea, into a forest (a forest?!), and over hills. By the laws of reality, this park should not have been possible. It’s like we stepped out of the museum, into some sort of pocket universe.

Lending credence to my outlandish theory was the fact that, although the crowd in the temple had been borderline outrageous, and despite this being the Sensō-ji’s most beautiful corner, the garden was nearly empty. It can’t have been the museum’s extremely reasonable entry fee scaring people off. No, the likeliest answer remains a disruption in the space-time continuum. Good luck finding the garden yourself, because it might not really exist.

Location of Sens?-ji on our Map

Weird Kit Kat Flavors From Japan

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April 3, 2014 at 3:04 am Comments (3)

The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji

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Nakamise-dōri, a pedestrian shopping street which leads directly to the temple of Sensō-ji, is always busy, but today it was packed. All eyes were cast upwards as a 60-foot dragon wound its way through the air, above the crowd. It was March 18th and Sensō-ji was celebrating the Kinryu no Mai, or Golden Dragon Dance.

The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji

Way back in the year 628, two brothers found an icon of the Boddhisattva Kannon while fishing in the Sumida River. They were non-believers and threw the icon back into the water. Soon thereafter, it appeared once more in their nets. They discarded it again, and when the relic showed up a third time, they figured that it must be some sort of sign.

They went to their chief, who listened intently to the story and decided to honor the miraculous icon by building a new temple, the first in the village which would later become Tokyo. When the figure was enshrined, Kannon herself was said to have descended from the sky in the form of a golden dragon.

It’s this legend which the annual Golden Dragon Dance seeks to recreate. We followed the weaving creature down Nakamise-Dōri and into the courtyard of the Sensō-i, where the real dance would begin. Seven younger guys holding sticks managed the dragon’s twisting, fluid motions, while an older man wielding a staff pranced in front of the beast, shouting at it. I’m still unsure whether he was supposed to be commanding, communicating with, or fighting the dragon. Regardless, it was an entertaining show.

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Framed Photos From Tokyo

The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
The Golden Dragon Dance of Senso-Ji
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March 30, 2014 at 8:03 am Comment (1)

A Concise History of Tokyo

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Old Tokyo Photo

Unlike many of the places we’ve visited, Tokyo doesn’t have a history which stretches far into the past. In fact, before the close of the nineteenth century, Tokyo didn’t even exist; it was known instead as Edo. But the rapid ascension from village to “World’s Biggest City” has been as catastrophic as it has been meteoric. Growing pains are always the hardest for those who mature too quickly.

3000 BC Humanity arrives late to the Kantô Plain. At this point, the Egyptians had already established a civilization around the Nile.
628 AD Fishermen brothers discover a Buddhist icon in the waters of the Sumida River, and the Sensō-ji Temple is established in what would eventually become Tokyo.
12th Century Clan leader Edo Shigenaga establishes his castle on the shore, bequeathing the town his name.
1590 Shortly before establishing the shogunate which would rule Japan for 268 years, Tokugawa Ieyasu chooses Edo as his home, irrevocably changing the destiny of the heretofore unimportant fishing village.
1657 Rumored to have started with the burning of a cursed kimono, the great Meireki Fire burns most of Edo to the ground and kills over 100,000 people.
1707 Covering Edo in volcanic ash, but no lava, Mount Fuji erupts. It’s since lain dormant for over 300 years, but remains an active volcano.
1853 Commodore Matthew Perry (not the guy from Friends) lands in Edo Bay and forces a previously isolationist Japan to open its borders to American capitalism, under threat of war.
1868 The era of the Japanese Shogun comes to an end with the rise of the Meiji Empire. Edo is renamed Tokyo, meaning “Eastern Capital,” and the emperor moves into the city’s Imperial Palace
1923 Striking at noon, when the stoves of the city were ablaze for lunch, the Great Kantō Earthquake ignites fires across Tokyo, destroying most of its housing and killing a significant percentage of its populace. Oh yeah, and sets off a tsunami.
1945 The Pacific War isn’t a rousing success for Japan. In its waning stages, the USA drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then fire-bombs Tokyo to within an inch of its life. Debates can (and have) been waged on whether the American submission technique was a necessary evil, but what can’t be questioned is its horrible toll on innocent Japanese life.
1964 Japan’s postwar healing comes full-circle with Tokyo’s hosting of the Summer Olympics. The games are a source of pride for Japanese citizens, and Tokyo’s infrastructure is rapidly modernized. It’s a much-needed success story in this city which has known so much tragedy.
1995 Ten members of the fanatical Aum Shinrikyo cult unleash a sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways. Thirteen die and thousands are injured in the worst assault on Japan since World War II.
2011 The completion of the Tokyo SkyTree brings the world’s tallest tower to the world’s biggest city, and solidifies Tokyo’s place in the architectural vanguard. Days before the tower reaches its final height, the Tōhoku earthquake ravages Japan.
2014 and Beyond It takes a single glance at the cranes and construction around Tokyo to understand that Japan’s capital isn’t done growing yet. The Olympics are slated to return in 2020, which will give the world an excuse to turn its attention towards its largest city. As though another excuse were needed.

Tokyo History Books

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March 21, 2014 at 6:47 am Comment (1)
Sens?-ji Temple Tokyo's oldest temple is the Sensō-ji, constructed in the year 645. Like almost everything else in this city plagued by earthquakes and fire, it's been rebuilt multiple times, but has always been an important place of worship.
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