Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

January 4, 2017

Seven Deities of Good Fortune in Sumida

The Sumida River circuit of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune in Tokyo is the very first of this type of New Year pilgrimages: it was devised in 1804 by Sawara Kiku, a retired curio dealer and dabbler in Chinese culture. Sawara had bought land here for a garden, Hyakkaen, in which he installed a small statue of the Chinese deity Fukurokuju. He next searched the temples and shrines in the vicinity to complete the set of the lucky seven and so the pilgrimage was born. The Sumida River course thus stands at the cradle of a long and impressive line of lucky pilgrimages, but is itself one of the best - perhaps even the very best - despite the fact that Mukojima, the "Side Yonder of the River," where the course runs, has long lost its bucolic charm and now often is an eyesore jumble.


It is popular without getting extremely crowded. Start at either end, at Tamonji or the Mimeguri Shrine, and just follow the other people walking the pilgrimage. The whole course is about 3 kilometers, but as you need time to see the shrines and temples, count on spending half a day. Come here in the first week of January - that is when all temples are open to sell a small, black ceramic figure of their deity. These figures have to be placed on a ship, which you can buy at either end of the course. It is the Takarabune, the Treasury Ship of the Lucky Deities.

[Kannon and Main Hall of Tamonji - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Bishamonten in Tamonji Temple
(10 min N on foot from Kanegafuchi St on the Tobu Skytree Line)
"Tamon" is another name for Bishamonten, the Lucky Deity of this temple. Bishamonten / Tamonten is known as a protector of Buddhism from evil forces and here he serves in addition as the guardian of the other six Deities of Good Fortune. After all, they need a guard, as with their fat bellies and long white beards they themselves happily lack any martial prowess. Tamonji Temple stands in the northern part of Mukojima and acts therefore at the same time as the protector of the area. The temple sports a nice thatched gate, the only one left in the whole of the metropolis. There is an attractive little garden with the usual stone monuments - here including an impressive set of six Jizo statues and a modern Kannon.

[Shirahige Shrine - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Jurojin in the Shirahige Shrine
(10 min W on foot from Higashi-Mukojima St on the Tobu Skytree Line)
Shirahige, "White Whiskers," is the name of a deity of Korean origin - there is also a shrine dedicated to him at Lake Biwa. Because Jurojin, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, also proudly sports an impressive set of long, white whiskers, the two were easily associated with each other. Jurojin is originally a Chinese god of longevity, usually accompanied by symbolic animals as a stag, crane and turtle. He wears a long staff and is clad in the dress of a scholar. The shrine is hemmed in among ugly, modern buildings, but has a main hall dating from late Edo. 

[The Seven Herbs of Spring in Hyakkaen - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Fukurokuju in Hyakkaen Garden
(8 min W on foot from Higashi-Mukojima St on the Tobu Skytree Line)
Hyakkaen, a garden set up in 1804 by Sawara Kiku, forms the origin of the Sumidagawa Deities of Good Fortune: the tour was devised by Sawara and his friends, among whom famous literati and painters as Tani Buncho and Sakai Hoitsu. Considering the Chinese-centered interests of Edo-period literati, it is not strange that the set of Seven Deities of Good Fortune includes so many gods of Chinese origin. The plants and flowers in the garden, too, were all selected based on associations with Chinese literature, with an emphasis on the plum tree, the "gentleman's flower." In the northwest corner of the garden stands a small shrine with a statue of Fukurokuju, the - indeed, Chinese - deity of Good Luck, Fortune and Long Life. He has an extremely long, bald head, so you can't miss him. The garden is pleasant for a stroll, even in winter. It features a pond, bridges, arbors and is full of memorial stones, including stones with haiku by Basho.

[Stone stele in Chomeiji - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Benzaiten in Chomeiji Temple
(15 min NW on foot from Oshiage St on the Toei Asakusa subway line)
Chomeiji has a statue of Benten, the goddess of artistic inclinations, who carries a biwa lute and is usually enshrined on islands as Chikubushima in Lake Biwa or Enoshima near Kamakura, as she harks back to an Indian water sprite. Chomeiji also has a link with water: there is a sacred spring in the grounds. The water of that spring once revived an ailing shogun, who happened to come by on a falcon hunt, and that became the origin of the name "Temple of Long Life." Unfortunately, the modern city sprung up around it has not left much life in the temple, except the many monuments in the grounds, some with haiku, others with relief carvings of Buddhist deities. 

[Main hall of Kofukuji - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Hotei in Kofukuji Temple
(15 min NW on foot from Oshiage St on the Toei Asakusa subway line)
Kofukuji Temple attracts the attention by its impressive gate and hall. It is a temple of the Chinese Obaku Zen sect, and therefore a fitting place to house Hotei, the good-natured Chinese priest with his huge belly and broad smile. The head temple of the sect, Manpukuji in Uji, has an even more impressive Hotei statue on display. The temple was founded in 1673 by Tetsugyo Doki; the present buildings are reconstructions in traditional style from 1933, after the destruction by the 1923 earthquake. The Hotei shrine stands to the right as you enter the grounds.

[Mimeguri Shrine - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Ebisu and Daikokuten in Mimeguri Shrine
(15 min NW on foot from Gyoheibashi St on the Tobu Skytree Line)
As the Mimeguri Shrine possesses two statues, we finish the tour of Seven Deities by only visiting six places. Ebisu is the patron of fishers and traders and carries a fishing rod as well as what he caught with it, a large sea bream. Daikokuten is a mingling of an Indian god and the Japanese Okuninushi. He stands on rice bales and carries a mallet with which he scatters money around. Both gods are very cheerful and extremely popular in Japan.

[Stone fox in Mimeguri Shrine - photo Ad Blankestijn] 

Mimeguri originally was a combination of temple with shrine, probably founded somewhere in the 14th c., although it traces its history all the way to Kukai. A priest of the temple/shrine once dug up an image of Inari, the Fox God, in the grounds. Suddenly, a white fox appeared that ran three times around the statue before vanishing. This occult occurrence gave the name to the establishment: Three Circuits. The grounds, again, sport many statues (among them an impressive fox) as well as a stone with a haiku by Basho's disciple Kikaku.