Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, and remains both an active worship site and a popular destination for visitors to the Japanese capital.
The true entrance to the temple is the Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, which stands at the northern end of Nakamise Street, a road lined with vendors’ stalls that runs from the Thunder Gate to the temple’s main entrance gate (the Hozomon).
The figures in the side bays of the Kaminarimon are statues of Fujin and Raijin, the gods of wind and thunder, and the chochin (bamboo and silk lantern) hanging in the central bay is the most famous such lantern in Japan.
The vendors that line the approaches to many Japanese holy sites (Note: temples are normally Buddhist, whereas shrines are generally places of Shintō worship) close at sunset but Nakamise Street, the approach to Senso-ji, is brilliantly lit and open for business even after the sun goes down.
(Note the sprays of brightly-colored artificial maple leaves – momiji – that hang above the vendors’ stalls, in recognition and celebration of the autumn season.)
At the end of Nakamise Street, the enormous Hozomon rises up, several stories tall. A pair of Nio (guardian statues) stand in the outer bays. In addition to serving as the temple’s formal entrance, the hozomon is a repository for many of the temple’s holy relics and sacred treasures.
Beyond the hozomon lies the hondo, or main worship hall. An incense burner stands in front of the hondo, and many worshippers stop there to pray, light incense, and wave the smoke onto their faces and bodies. (The smoke from holy incense is believed to have healing and protective powers.)
Just to the right of the hondo stands a purification fountain, used for ritual purification before visitors ascend the hondo steps to pray and make offerings.
In Japan, dragons are associated with water, and the water that enters this fountain during the daytime pours from the mouths of the dragons around the warrior’s feet. (The fountain is turned off, and the dippers put away, after sunset.)
Sensoji was founded during the 7th century, after a pair of fishermen lowered their nets into the Sumida River and drew up an image of the Bodhisattva Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The Kannon remains enshrined at Sensoji to this day, although her image is not on public display.
The temple sits within a few kilometers of Tokyo’s famous Skytree, which is also lit at night (here, in gold and blue), allowing visitors to the temple to witness firsthand the juxtaposition of Japan’s ancient and modern history.
The temple grounds are extensive, and cover a much larger area than the bits I was able to visit during my single evening in Tokyo this trip. Someday, when I return to Japan, I hope to have time to walk the gardens and grounds more closely – but I definitely enjoyed my evening visit to Sensoji, and recommend that visitors to Tokyo include the temple in their plans, either by daylight or in the evening hours.