Sensō-ji, the Kannon Temple of Asakusa

The Buddhist Channel, 14 July 2023

Tokyo, Japan -- Many first timers setting sight on the grand Sensō-ji temple in Tokyo do not know what to make of what their eyes see. Like a gigantic red dragon hiding behind the corner of a big rock, visitors first approach the temple by entering through the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate).

Senso-ji: Main hall with five story pagoda. Night view

This imposing structure features a massive paper lantern dramatically painted in vivid red-and-black tones to suggest thunderclouds and lightning. This is the outer gate of Sensō-ji temple and the symbol of Asakusa and the entire city of Tokyo.

A shopping street of over 200 meters, called Nakamise, leads from the outer gate to the temple's second gate, the Hozomon. From here one gets a full view of the awe inspiring, majestically lighted stately five-story pagoda and the main hall. The night view of the temple is truly a sight to behold. The temple is a devoted monument to Kannon, Japanese for the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the Goddess of Mercy.

Kaminarimon (Thunder) Gate

Sensō-ji temple is a significant religious site with a rich history. Instead of dwelling into specific details of the temple (which can be found in many places), the following are information which are not so commonly published.

Birth, Destruction and Rebirth

According to tradition, the temple traces its origins back to 628 CE when a statue of Kannon, was discovered by fishermen near the Sumida River. The image was enshrined in a small shrine initially, but later a man named Haji-no-Atai Nakatomo transformed his house into a temple dedicated to Kannon. Asakusa Shrine, adjacent to the temple, honours the spirits of the three fishermen.

In the year 645 CE, Shokai Shonin arrived in the region and became the temple's first chief priest, solidifying his position as the temple's founder. The Kannon statue was designated a "hidden image" not to be exposed to the public, but a different statue by the Great Teacher Jikaku was installed as the main object of worship. Over time, Asakusa temple gained the devotion of both common people and the military class, becoming a prominent religious center.

In 1590, when Tokugawa Ieyasu established his rule in Edo (Tokyo), Asakusa temple became a place of worship for the Tokugawa family and an official institution for prayers. This led to the district around the temple flourishing, despite being destroyed by fires multiple times. With the onset of the Meiji era, the Asakusa district underwent cultural changes, and the area around the temple was converted into Asakusa Park.

In the Meiji era, the shrine dedicated to the fishermen who found the image was separated from the temple and placed under the administration of the Shrine Bureau. The annual festival of the shrine, the Sanja Matsuri, celebrated on May 17 and 18, became a vibrant event with numerous sacred portable shrines and floats.

During World War II, the main temple sanctuary, a five-storied pagoda and the Nio Gate were destroyed in air raids. The reconstruction of these structures began in 1951 and was completed in 1955. The main temple area measures 114 ft. by 108 ft. with a total floor space of 37,152 sq. ft.

Five storey pagoda

The new sanctuary features a gold-plated central altar housing the main image, along with dedicated altars for Fudo Myo-O and Aizen Myo-o. The temple has a titanium tiled roof that maintains the historic image but is stronger and lighter. Sensō-ji also showcases notable artwork and votive paintings.

With its stunning design and architecture, Sensō-ji is the most widely visited religious site in the world with over 30 million visitors annually. Funds collected from this mass visiting horde is used for welfare services which many are not aware of.

Social Welfare, Spirit of Kannon

Unknown to many, Sensō-ji temple has a long history of social welfare work. In the past, it operated various social and educational initiatives, but after World War II, many of these functions were taken over by the government. Nevertheless, these days the welfare services are provided by the temple's charitable arm, the Sensō-ji Temple Welfare Foundation. The foundation is funded by donations from the temple's visitors and members.

Sensō-ji welfare services are inspired by the compassion of Kannon. It is through this selfless spirit that drives it to look into managing a multi- faceted approach in helping the community.

Among the services provided since before WW2 are the Sensō-ji hospital, a nursery school, a supplementary school, and cultural activities such as religious readings and tea ceremonies.

The nursery school, established in 1931, provides education for children with a focus on religious development. The supplementary school offers classes for primary and middle school students conducted by the temple's education department staff and university students.

Sensō-ji Hospital, originally an emergency first aid station, now serves the public as a general hospital with a staff dedicated to the spirit of Kannon. The clinic provides free medical care to those without insurance.

Other welfare services include providing meals and temporary housing to those in need, job training programs to help people find employment and rehabilitation programs to help people with disabilities.

Furthermore, the temple hosts regular activities such as sacred readings, sermons, and tea-drinking ceremonies for followers, promoting the popularity of the Kannon faith among the people.

In addition to these services, Sensoji temple also sponsors a number of other social welfare projects, such as a soup kitchen that provides meals to the homeless, a day care center for children of working parents, a homeless shelter and a rehabilitation center for drug addicts.

Lessons in Compassion

Sensoji temple's social welfare services are an important part of the temple's mission to help those in need. The temple's commitment to social welfare is evident in the wide range of services it provides and the number of people it has helped over the years. This fits in well with the teachings and compassionate values of Kannon.

Sensō-ji temple stands as a symbol of spirituality, history and social welfare, offering visitors a glimpse into the cultural and religious traditions of Japan.
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