January 28 and February 2, 2017
I was looking up at a dragon staring down at me. That was how it was standing directly under the giant chochin, that iconic Japanese lantern, hanging under Kaminarimon, the entrance gate to Sensō-ji. The stream of tourists washing into temple grounds was oblivious to the intricate carving on the wooden, hidden dragon above them. I timed a gap in the human flow to take a groufie with my girlfriends before another wave of people nudged us to move forward.
The meet-up place was Mina’s favorite Korean restaurant near the temple. Sufficiently nourished, Melissa and I closely followed Mina as she led us through the crowd. At a thousand and a half years old, Tokyo’s oldest temple was still on a roll. Sensō-ji had stood as the center of most things traditional in this ultra-modern city.
Mina stopped by what looked like an ancient chest of drawers left outdoors. She wanted to seek practical guidance from omikuji, fortune papers that contained words of advice for health, love, career, even travel. At a drop of a coin, I got mine as well.
I shook the tin box vigorously for maximum luck, drew a numbered stick, and opened the drawer to which it corresponded. I retrieved the paper in it that could be marked kichi (positive) or kyou (negative). My fortune was prefaced with “your request will be granted.” It was a relief to know which kind of paper I got.
Part of my fortune read, “Though it takes a little time, the patient will get well.” The opening line resonated to a late bloomer like myself. It continued to say that building a house would go well, a reassuring thought for someone in the market for a condo unit at that time. It capped my fortune with a promise of safe travels, again reassuring for this traveler at heart.
Clutching the paper of good fortune in our hands, we joined the throng up the temple steps. It was dark and packed, the aroma of incense weighed heavily in the air.
We decided to turn back and made a beeline for Nakamise-dōri, the pedestrian street on the approach to the temple. Since its beginnings in the early 18th century, the street was flanked by souvenir shops, some over a century old. Religion and commerce had been inextricably linked since time immemorial. As vendors thrived on temple grounds during the time of Jesus, so did they in Buddhist Japan. These days though, shops were making a killing from tourism.
After a mouthful of ice cream sandwich, we partook of non-edible culture. I was reacquainted with a mikoshi, a traditional palanquin borne by a few good men on their shoulders during Shinto festivals, I saw a decade earlier in Asakusa. No Japanese had ever told me exactly what it contained. The practice brought to mind my country’s Catholic tradition of carrying the image of the Baby Jesus through the streets during a town fiesta.
So went my Sensō fix. Or so I thought. As I emerged from the subway one night, I caught a familiar figure on the dark sidewalk. It was my Japanese friend, Taka. He invited me to join him on an after-hours stroll through the temple. Was I still riding high on my omikuji lucky streak? I shivered with excitement, or more likely with the winter’s night chill.
Kaminarimon, aka Thunder Gate, loomed larger in isolation. Striking red pillars and lantern lit-up against the night sky commanded awe. Somehow, daytime crowds stole the gate’s thunder.
The temple itself was closed, but we could still walk around the complex. A sense of reverence and delicacy enveloped this deserted enclave as the bustling metropolis around it had fallen far away. Even Taka spoke in hushed tones despite the absence of anyone within earshot. Our conversation approached the solemnity of a prayer.
Taka told of a legend about how the temple came to be more than a millennium ago. A couple of fishermen found a sacred statue floating in nearby Sumida River. The discovery inspired the building of this temple to house the relic. Again, the legend called to mind a similar one in my country, except that the image was that of the Virgin Mary and the place of worship was a church. I realized Buddhism and Catholicism shared more things in common than I had ever imagined.
We took a “twofie” under that formidable chochin, the red lantern, that was too fragile to have been an original. Instead, it was a replica made specifically for the 400th anniversary of the Edo Era’s establishment. Not that it mattered. I had the favor of good fortune, thanks to Mina, and a moment of meditation in Sensō-ji, thanks to Taka. It was the most Zen I had ever experienced in Japan.