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

January 28, 2017

The Best Three in Japan

Pythagoras calls three the perfect number, expressive of “beginning, middle, and end,” and he therefore makes it the symbol of the divine. The Japanese, too, are fond of this number, and the Japanese-language Wikipedia has an enormous page with lists of "the best three... (fill in what you like) in Japan," ranging from nature, architecture, religion, food, history, to life and entertainment.

Here is a selection:

[Mt Fuji - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Sacred Mountains (San Reizan)
  • Mt Fuji (3,776m), the perfect conical volcano at the border of Shizuoka and Yamanashi Prefectures that is the symbol of the whole country. In the course of history, there have been 18 eruptions, the last one in 1707. Since ancient times, Mt Fuji has been regarded as a sacred mountain by the Japanese. 
  • Tateyama, a group of peaks in eastern Toyama Pref., with snowy ravines and beautiful alpine flora (the main peak is Mt Oyama at 2,992m) forms the NW outpost of the Northern Japanese Alps. 
  • Mt Hakusan (2,702m) is a famous volcano on the border of Ishikawa and Gifu Prefectures, and like the other mountains above two, a pilgrimage center. The Shinto shrine Shirayamahime near Kaga-Ichinomiya Station stands at the foot of the mountain and affords a good view of its peak in clear weather.
[Kegon Falls - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Great Sacred Waterfalls (San Dai-kotaki)
  • The Nachi Falls (133m) in southern Wakayama Pref., in the Yoshino-Kumano National park - contrary to what you would expect, a thin, wispy thread of a waterfall; but very photogenic when seen with the vermilion-colored, three-story pagoda of nearby Seigantoji temple in the foreground.
  • The Kegon Falls (97m) in Nikko, draining into a gorge from Lake Chuzenji, is probably Japan's most spectacular waterfall; the falls have such a sheer descent that wind and air tear the water apart into a lace-like drapery, which gives the falls a phantasmal beauty.
  • The Nunobiki Falls in Kobe, only 45 meters but famous in classical poetry (see my post about the Nunobiki Falls). The falls were a popular retreat for Kobe residents, but are now hidden behind Shinkobe Station, so that only hikers find their way here. 
[Ukimido at Lake Biwa - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Largest Lakes (San Daiko)
  • Lake Biwa (672 sq km; circumference: 277 km; deepest point: 104 m), taking up 1/6 of Shiga Pref. As the lake is shaped like the musical instrument named biwa, a sort of lute, it has earned its present name. There are several small islands in the lake composed of volcanic rock; the most famous is Chikubushima, dedicated to the goddess Benten and a stage on the Saihoku Kannon Pilgrimage.
  • Lake Kasumigaura in Ibaraki Pref. (168 sq km; circumference: 137 km; depth: 7 m). At its SE extremity, the water flows through a canal into another lake, Kitaura, which is connected with the Tone River. On the SE shore of lake Kitaura stands the famous Kashima Shrine.
  • Lake Saroma in northern Hokkaido (152 sq km; circumference: 90 km; depth: 20 m), in fact a lagoon on the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk. It abounds in salmon, trout, herring and pond smelt. Adjacent is another lagoon/lake called Notoro; the nearest town is Abashiri.
The Three Greatest Onsen (San Dai-onsen)
  • Atami Onsen in Shizuoka Pref., a large resort with hundreds of springs, already popular since the 8th c. The name Atami means "hot sea," and the whole Atami area is part of an extinct volcano. 50% of the mineral content of the water is common salt, while the remainder are chlorines and sulphates. The springs are said to be helpful in the treatment of rheumatism, skin diseases and nervous ailments. 
  • Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Pref., a white beach fronted by hotels; the springs are just at the waterfront, so that bathers are splashed by the ocean waves. The alkaline waters, impregnated with chlorides, are said to be effective in the treatment of diseases of the throat, stomach and intestines, as well as rheumatism and neuralgia. 
  • Beppu Onsen in Oita Pref. has 8 major hot springs called "the eight hells of Beppu." This town is so garish that it is almost fascinating. One of its onsen hotels features a giant bath complete with slides, exotic pavilion, a torii gate, and tanks with tropical fish. Everyday 100,000 kl of hot water boils up from 3,795 different openings; the waters are said to be efficacious in the treatment of a whole variety of illnesses. 
[Taiko no Yudonokan Museum, showing Hideyoshi's bath house in Arima Onsen 
- photo Ad Blankestijn]
]
The Three Oldest Onsen (San Koto)
  • Arima Onsen on the N side of Mt Rokko in Hyogo Pref. was already discovered in the 7th c. There are two kinds of springs, one (kinsen), which has water colored yellow-brown from iron and salt, the other (ginsen), which is colorless and contains radium and carbonate. Arima was popular with the warlord Hideyoshi, whose bath has been excavated and now is a museum. 20th c. literary giant Tanizaki Junichiro was also a frequent visitor; he enjoyed the rustic atmosphere of the old inns. Today, the nicest place in Arima is the area around Onsenji Temple, with the Tosen Jingu Shrine, Gokurakuji Temple and Nembutsuji Temple all standing close together. 
  • Shirahama Onsen (Wakayama Pref) - see above.
  • Dogo Onsen in Ehime Pref., in the outskirts of Matsuyama, is already mentioned in the Manyoshu. There is a majestic public bathhouse built in 1894. Natsume Soseki used it as a location in his comic novel Botchan. Matsuyama is also known for other writers, as the poets Masaoka Shiki and Santoka. The water is alkaline, transparent, colorless and tasteless. 
[Kumamoto Castle - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Famous Castles (San Meijo)
  • Himeji Castle (Hyogo Pref.), located in the center of Himeji. The best castle in Japan and one of the very few still in its original state (i.e. not a modern reconstruction). Built in 1603 by Ikeda Terumasa. The five-storied keep took nine years to construct. On purpose, a system of walls creates a labyrinthine approach to the castle. With their curved and pointed gables, the turrets are very elegant. The mansion where the castle lord lived, stood at the base of the main tower.
  • Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto Pref, unfortunately heavily damaged by the 2016 earthquake). The original castle was destroyed in 1877 during the Satsuma Rebellion, and the keep was reconstructed as a museum in modern times, but the original fortifications and castle walls are still there and very impressive. The walls are remarkable for their stone-dropping vents and overhanging eaves (so that invaders could not climb over the wall). These can still be seen on eleven surviving turrets. 
  • Nagoya Castle (Aichi Pref.). The original castle, built between 1609 and 1614, was one of the greatest fortresses in Japan. It was unfortunately destroyed in WWII, not only the keep, but also the daimyo's living quarters with beautiful screens. The keep has been rebuilt in concrete. Also visit the Tokugawa Art Museum elsewhere in Nagoya, which exhibits bit by bit the superb collection of the branch of the Tokugawa family that ruled from the castle. 
[Kintaikyo - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Famous Bridges (San Meikyo)
  • Nihonbashi (Tokyo). Nihonbashi was a major mercantile district developed by the Mitsui family, as well as a fish market. The first bridge was built in 1603 to span the Nihonbashi River. The bridge became extra famous as it was the terminus of the Tokaido, the highroad between Edo and Kyoto, from where all distances were measured.
  • Kintaikyo (Iwakuni). A historical wooden arch bridge, built in 1673 without the use of nails, spanning the Nishiki River in a series of five wooden arches - an undulating span that is thought to resemble a brocade sash. The bridge is located at the foot of Mt Yokoyama, at the top of which stands Iwakuni Castle; the Nishiki River separated the quarter of the samurai from that of the commoners. The bridge could only be used by samurai, commoners had to take a small boat.
  • Meganebashi (Nagasaki). The "Spectacles Bridge," a double arch which when reflected in the water, suggests a pair of spectacles. Built in 1634 by the second abbot of Kofukuji, introducing a Chinese-style stone arch into Japan. 
 [The torii of Miyajima - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Views of Japan (Nihon Sankei)
  • Matsushima, a group 260 small scenic islands in scenic Matsushima Bay, Miyagi Pref, near Sendai (don't miss National Treasure temple Zuiganji here). Most of the islands were formed by strata of volcanic tuff; some of them are mere pinnacles, others appear like battlements; again others have caves and tunnels hollowed out by the waves. On most of them pine trees cling to the scanty soil in all sorts of fantastic positions. 
  • Amanohashidate, a 3.6 km long sandbar with interestingly gnarled pine trees in western Wakasa Bay near the Tango Peninsula, northwestern Kyoto Pref. The sandbar is connected to Monju near Amanohashidate Station via a bridge. The best view is from Kasamatsu Park on far side. Behind Kasamatsu Park stands the old Buddhist temple Nariaiji, one of the temples on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage.
  • Miyajima (also known as Itsukushima), a forested island in Hiroshima Bay that is home to a National Treasure shrine famous for its huge vermilion torii gate standing out in the bay. Miyajima was already in the 6th c. considered as an island sacred to the sea deities. In the past, worshipers approached the island by boat through its torii. The many deer roaming freely on the island are considered as messengers of the kami. 
The Three Major Night Views (San Dai-yakei)
  • Hakodate seen from Mt Hakodate (accessible by cable car). This is also a good view by day, as the location of Hakodate, on a narrow isthmus with the sea on both sides, and Mt Hakodate at the tip, is very interesting.
  • Kobe and Osaka Bay seen from the Kikuseidai park on Mt Maya (accessible by Maya Cable Car);
  • Nagasaki seen from Mt Inasa (accessible by ropeway). This view is also good by day, as the whole city with the bay, as painted by Kawahara Keiga for the Dutch who had their trading post on Deshima, lies at your feet.
[Kenrokuen - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Famous (Daimyo) Gardens (San Mei-en)
  • Korakuen in Okayama, established in 1702 by daimyo Ikeda Tsunemasa and an example of the Kobori Enshu school of landscape gardening - the garden is adorned by tea houses, ponds, waterfalls and a noh-stage (13.3 hectares). The black castle of the Ikedas looms in the background of the garden. Patches of rices paddies and tea bushes provide a rustic touch. 
  • Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa, laid out in 1822 by daimyo Maeda Narinaga and famous for its beauty in all seasons, plus for possessing the oldest fountain in Japan (10 hectares). No expense was spared in creating the pond, streams, and hills of this garden, or in moving the rocks and planning the gnarled pine trees. The best daimyo garden in Japan.  
  • Kairakuen in Mito, the capital of Ibaraki, known for its forest of plum trees (ume) and established in 1842 by powerful daimyo Tokugawa Nariaki (7.5 hectares). There is a nice pavilion in the center of the garden.
[Gion Festival - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Great Festivals (San Dai-matsuri)
  • The Sanno Festival of the Hie Shrine in Tokyo, celebrated from June 10 to 16 - the deity Sanno Gongen was the guardian of Edo Castle; the festival culminates in a stately procession on the 15th, led by an ox-drawn sacred carriage and accompanied by mounted samurai. Note that the main version of this festival is only held in even numbered years, alternating with the Kanda Matsuri. 
  • The Gion Festival of the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, famous for the parade of giant, wheeled floats on July 17, although held during the whole month of July; originated in the 9th c. when halberds where carried to a pond and dipped in as a supplication to end a plague. The famous floats first appeared in the Muromachi period (1336-1573).
  • The Tenjin Festival of the Tenmangu Shrine in Osaka, held July 24 and 25 and featuring a procession of festival boats with drum beaters aboard on the River Yodo.
The Three Great Sacred Places (San Dai-reijo)
  • Osorezan (Mt Terror), a mountain on the Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori Pref. considered by locals as the gathering place of souls of the dead. It is a desolate volcanic landscape sacred to blind shamans (itako); the temple here (Bodaiji, also called Entsuji) is of relative recent date (1522) and the itako cult is even more recent - an interestingly creepy place, but qua historical and cultural importance Osorezan can not stand in the shadow of the next two sacred places:
  • Mt Hiei, northwest of Kyoto, with Enryakuji, the headquarters of Tendai Buddhism, founded in 788 by Saicho (Dengyo Daishi). The mountain is studded with temple halls, divided into three separate precincts. The main hall is the Konpon Chudo (Fundamental Central Hall), a national treasure dating in its present form from 1642. If you stay on the mountain (there are no temple lodgings, but there is a central "hotel" called Enryakuji Kaikan), you can early in the morning observe the Buddhist service in this hall. 
  • Mt. Koya in Wakayama Pref., the headquarters of esoteric Shingon Buddhism. The complex was founded in 816 by Kukai (Kobo Daishi). Besides the head temple Kongobuji and Okunoin, the mausoleum of Kukai, there are more than fifty temples on the mountain, many of which offer lodgings. More than a million pilgrims visit Koya-san every year. Besides the central compound (garan) and the Tohokan Treasure Hall, especially the huge cemetery lying under a canopy of ancient trees, on the way to the Okuno-in, is impressive.
[Fushimi sake breweries - photo Ad Blankestijn]
Three Great Sake Producing Clusters (San Dai-shuzo)
  • Nada in Hyogo Prefecture. The sake area of the Five Nada Districts stretches from Nishinomiya to Kobe (skipping Ashiya), with in all about 25 large and small breweries. Today, it is not such a beautiful area as it has been densely built up in a haphazard way with flats, outlets and warehouses, but you will forget this once you stand inside the breweries which often feature buildings in historical style. Several breweries operate brewery museums or have shops.
  • Fushimi in Kyoto. Gekkeikan and other breweries operate beautiful old warehouses here and there is also a sake museum. There are 17 breweries in Fushimi. Except for the big, nationally operating Gekkeikan and Takara Shuzo, these are mostly smaller breweries that have dedicated themselves to brewing premium sake. 
  • Saijo (East Hiroshima) and Takehara in Hiroshima Pref. There are 9 sake breweries in Saijo, often housed in historical buildings. In Takehara, another historical town, there are three more breweries. The National Institute of Brewing is also located in Saijo. 







January 7, 2017

Nanakusa or Seven Herb Festival

January 7 is the day of the Nanakusa or Seven Herb Festival. This day, many Japanese eat rice gruel (kayu) that contains the seven medicinal herbs of spring as a prayer for good health in the coming year (nanakusa-gayu).

In ancient Japan, people customarily gathered herbs in the spring and ate them as an expression of their wish for good health. The herbs could also be presented to a superior as a wish for long life. To make then easier to consume, the seven spring herbs were later added to a gruel.

The custom goes back to the Heian-period, when according to tradition the Emperor Saga was very fond of this broth, although it was in his time eaten on the first Day of the Rat. In the late ninth century, in the days of Emperor Uda, the custom came to be observed on January 7.

The custom of serving the Emperor with a medicinal gruel on January 7 continued till the Tokugawa period, during which the Seven Herbs Festival came to be widely observed in the whole country.

[Nanakusa-gayu - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The seven herbs are:
nazuna, or shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

hakobera, or chickweed (Stellaria media)

seri, or water dropworth, Japanese parsley (Oenanthe javanica; this is one of the few non-toxic species of the Oenanthe (water dropworts) genus, which are otherwise extremely toxic, so outside of Japan be careful not to consume any wild-growing varieties even in small amounts!)

gogyo or hahakogusa, cottonweed (Gnaphalium affine)

hotokenoza, or henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

suzuna or kabu, turnip (Brassica campestris)

and suzushiro or daikon, white radish (Raphanus sativus).
[Nanakusa - photo Ad Blankestijn]

I must confess some of the English names above mean as little to me as the Japanese ones (with the exception of course of white radish and turnip), but I trust in age-old wisdom and will have my bowl of medicinal gruel today!

And that is very easy in our modern times. In the past, these herbs had to be gathered, mixed and beaten with a willow-stick on the night of January 6. Now, conveniently, you can find packs of the herbs in supermarkets, sometimes already with the gruel added, so you only have to heat it.

Nanakusa - the fresh variety on the left, and the freeze-dried variety on the right
- photo Ad Blankestijn]

By the way, Poem 15 (Emperor Koko) of the Hyakunin Isshu is about the gathering of the young greens of the seven herbs in the fields of spring.

And then there is also a set of the "seven herbs of autumn," but that is of later concern...

[Update Jan. 8: replaced photos]

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.


January 2, 2017

First Calligraphy in the New Year

The First Calligraphy in the New Year is called "Kakizome" or "Kissho-hajime" and it is one of many "firsts," as we have hatsugama (the first tea ceremony), hatsu-ike (the first flower arragement), hatsu-ni (the first cargo), and hatsuyori (the first visit to their music teacher by maiko).
The custom which is usually held on January 2, seems to go back to the Kamakura period (1192-1333). With the spread of literacy in the Edo-period, via the terakoya temple schools, it became a nationwide practice.

Traditionally, kakizome was performed with the first water drawn from the well on New Year's day (wakamizu) - the water was used to rub the ink stick in to make ink. People would be seated in the lucky direction of the year according to the zodiac signs and write poetry containing auspicious expressions as "long life" or "eternal spring."

In modern Japan, kakizome has mainly become a children's activity. Pupils are assigned kakizome as their winter holiday homework. They write auspicious expressions (kibo no haru, "a hopeful spring," hatsu-yume, "first dream," etc.) or New Year resolutions rather than poems. The results, written in bold characters on long rectangular pieces of paper like hanging scrolls, are exhibited together in the school.

Brush and ink were brought from China in the distant past and calligraphy, Shodo, has become an inseparable part of Japanese culture. But due to the use of computer keyboards, also in Japan most people now have bad handwriting. Even more seriously, they are forgetting the Chinese characters, so in recent years we have seen many books published to stimulate people to write kanji again by hand. This is also considered to be good for your brain and a means to ward off old-age forgetfullness.

The results of the kakizome are usually displayed until January 15. In some parts of Japan they are then burned together with the New Year decorations. The higher the burned flakes soar, the more accomplished your handwriting will become!

January 1, 2017

The Seven Deities of Good Fortune (Shichifukujin)

In Japan, "Shichifukujin" are the seven gods (kami) who are said to bring wealth and long life. The group of these seven lucky gods consists of Ebisu, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Fukurokuju, Jurojin and Hotei. This includes gods and sages of Indian, Chinese and Japanese origin; one of them is a historical person. These deities are all in the order of syncretistic folk religion rather than pure Shinto or Buddhism (of course, in pre-modern times pure forms of these religions didn't exist, everything was mixed together in the most folksy way).

[The Seven Deities of Good Fortune in Fujinomori Jinja, Kyoto - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Ebisu: A Japanese fishing deity, who with the passage of time also became a deity of commerce and farming.
Daikokuten: A Hindu deity, "Mahakara," an avatar of Vishnu. Was merged in Japan with the traditional Shinto deity Okuninushi no Mikoto.
Bishamonten: Originally a Hindu deity, Kuvera. Was a war god, but after he was taken up by Buddhism, he was turned into a deity who increases fortune (Vaisravana).
Benzaiten: Originally a Hindu goddess called Sarasvati. In Buddhism she became a goddess of music, eloquence, wealth and wisdom.
Fukurokuju: A Daoist deity from China,. He brings long life, happiness and wealth.
Jurojin: A Daoist deity, avatar of the South Pole Star, again a deity who brings long life.
Hotei: An eccentric Chinese Zen priest who lived in the 10th c. Also seen as an incarnation of Miroku Bosatsu.

These deities were grouped together as "shichifukujin" in the Muromachi period, but initially the members were not fixed and Benzaiten was added somewhat later. They came to be widely worshiped in Japan from between the 15th and 17th centuries, especially among urban merchants and artisans. Their jolly group appears in many painted, sculpted or printed examples.

The Seven Deities of Good Fortune are often seen sailing in a Treasure Ship (Takarebune), filled with magical instruments, rich merchandise, and a bag of money that never empties. Such a picture is an auspicious symbol, especially during New Year celebrations. People may place it under their pillow on the night of 1 January to guarantee that the first dream of the year will be a lucky one.

Another New Year custom is "Shichifukujin-meguri," a circuit of seven shrines or temples that each enshrine one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune. Such a tour is thought to bring luck, and is also good fun. At each temple/shrine one receives a stamp on a shikishi (square piece of cardboard) or on a scroll; sometimes one has to collect small clay dolls of the deities and place these on a treasure ship. Such tours are most popular in the first days (or week) of the New Year, but some of the most frequented circuits are open all year. Famous circuits are the "Sumidagawa Shichifukujin" circuit, or the "Yanaka Shichifukujin" circuit. In Kamakura we have the "Kamakura Enoshima Shichifukujin" circuit, and in Kyoto "Miyako Shichifukujin" and so on (there are between 50 and 60 courses in the whole of Japan). Some can be done on foot, but in other cases the shrines and temples are spaced so far apart that public transport is necessary.

Here is a look in more detail at the seven deities:

[Ebisu - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Ebisu
Ebisu is regarded specifically as the god of farming, fishing and commerce (in contemporary urban society, especially that last function). The name "Ebisu" in fact means "foreigner" and reflects a belief in deities who have come from afar (marebito) and bring skills from foreign lands. Ebisu is also identified as Kotoshironushi no Kami, the son of the god Okuninushi no Mikoto, or as Hiruko, in Japanese mythology the first, "boneless" child of the creator gods Izanagi and Izanami. The feast of Ebisu is usually celebrated in October (but at some shrines also in January). In October all kami from Japan are supposed to visit Izumo for the Kami-ai-sai, but Ebisu was excluded - perhaps because the kami of the market place and commerce could not allowed to be absent.

Originally a fishing deity (most of his shrines are located at the coast), the association with markets and commerce dates from the 12th century. A purification ritual and prayers for prosperity were offered before the market commenced. Worship of Ebisu became popular during the Edo period, when Ebisu dolls were sold throughout the country by traveling Ebisu puppeteers from Nishinomiya. Such dolls were used by believers at festival rites for Ebisu (Ebisu-ko). The main shrine of Ebisu stands in Nishinomiya, between Kobe and Osaka; here Ebisu is identified as Hiruko. Another important shrine is Imamiya Ebisu Jinja in Osaka, where Ebisu is identified as Kotoshironushi no Kami. An important festival is Toka Ebisu, held on January 10.

Ebisu is normally represented as a plump bearded figure, smiling happily, and wearing a kimono, a divided skirt (hakama) or a Heian period hunting robe (kariginu) and a tall cap folded in the middle (kazaori eboshi). He holds a fishing rod in his right hand and carries a sea bream (tai, a symbol of good luck) under his left arm. He may also be depicted sitting on a rock. Ebisu is the only one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune to originate purely from Japan. He is frequently paired with our next deity, Daikoku; they are often enshrined in kitchens. You may see a small Ebisu statue in restaurants where fish is served.

[Daikokuten - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Daikokuten
The god of wealth. Also known as Mahakara ("Great Black") i.e. Shiva, an Indian god who fought forces of evil and in Buddhism became a protector of the Three Treasures (the Buddha, the Law and the priesthood). Mahakara was introduced to Japan by the priest Saicho, the founder of Tendai Buddhism, who made him the protector of the food supply in monasteries. But since the name Mahakara was homophonous with an alternate reading of the ideograms for the Shinto deity Okuninushi no Mikoto, the two were subsequently merged. Okuninushi is the major deity of the Grand Shrine of Izumo, whose messenger is the rat.

Together with Ebisu, Daikokuten is venerated as the tutelary deity of the kitchen. Daikokuten is usually represented as a fat and wealthy-looking merchant wearing a black hat with a round crown, holding a mallet of good fortune (kozuchi) in his right hand, and carrying a huge bag packed with valuable objects slung over his left shoulder. The mallet could also associate him with carpenters. He may be standing on two straw bushels (tawara) containing rice, with mice nearby signifying plentiful food.

The oldest extant image of Daikokuten in Japan is the late Heian wooden sculpture in Kanzeonji in Dazaifu (Fukuoka prefecture), where his expression is fierce, perhaps indicating that he originally was a war god. It may have been the subsequent association with Okuninushi that turned Daikokuten into a god of good fortune.

[Bishamonten - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Bishamonten
Bishamonten is originally Tamonten, one of the Four Heavenly Kings (Shitenno), who protect the four quarters and whose statues often stand on altars in large Buddhist temples. Tamonten is the protector of the North. He is based on the Hindu god Kuvera, who in Buddhism became Vaisravana. As a single deity, he is called Bishamonten. He is depicted as a warrior in armor with a grotesque face, holding a halberd in one hand and a treasure tower (hoto) in the other. He may also be depicted with a hoop of fire at his back. He is the god of fortune in war and battles, also associated with authority and dignity. He is the protector of those who follow the rules and behave appropriately. As a protector of the North, his image is found in temples like Kuramadera north of Kyoto, or in temples in Iwate like Narushima Bishamondo (here iconographically as Tobatsu Bishamonten, supported by the female deity Jiten). In addition, he is the protector of the Buddhist teaching and of the nation. There are many old tales of Bishamon's miraculous deeds. It is from the Muromachi period that he became in the first place known as a deity of good fortune.

[Benzaiten - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Benzaiten (Benten)
Benzaiten comes from the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, the patron of music, learning, eloquence, wealth, longevity, and protection from natural disasters. In Indian mythology she was a river goddess. She appears in two forms: with eight arms and eight hands holding a bow, an arrow, a sword, an ax, a spear, a long pestle, an iron wheel and a silk rope (in the Sangatsudo of Todaiji, Nara, or in Hogonji on Chikubushima, Shiga Pref.); or as a plump Chinese lady dressed in a flowing gown and holding a biwa lute (Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura).

Benzaiten may also be seated on a white serpent, indicating her watery origins. In the Edo period, the popularity of Benzaiten among the merchant and urban classes grew. Benzaiten is often confused with Kichijoten, another female deity of good luck who was considered as the wife of Bishamonten.

[Fukurokuju - photo Ad Blankestijn]


Fukurokuju
Derived from the Chinese legend of a Song-Dynasty hermit, Fulushou. He is also associated with the Pole Star (Nankyukosei). He is the kami of wealth (fuku), happiness (roku) and long life (ju). Fukurokuju is depicted as having a small body and an elongated bald head. He may be accompanied by a bat, a crane or a tortoise. Fukurokuju is often confused with Jurojin. (The sake brand Fukuju takes its name from this deity).

[Jurojin - photo Ad Blankestijn]

Jurojin
Called Shoulaoren in Chinese, this Daoist deity is known as the Immortal of the Northern Song Dynasty and like Fukurokuju is often identified with the Pole Star (Nankyukosei). He is depicted as a Chinese-style hermit. Jurojin sports a large elongated head and a white beard and carries a long staff to which a Buddhist sutra is attached. He is often accompanied by a white stag said to be 1,500 years old. (The sake brand Hakushika takes its name from this white stag of Jurojin). In Japan, he became a deity of longevity. He may also be shown under a plum tree, another symbol of long life as these trees can live for many centuries. As a member of the Seven Deities, in Japan he is also considered as being Shirahige Myojin, the deity of the Shirahige Shrines.

[Hotei in Manpukuji, Kyoto - photo Ad Blnakestijn]
Hotei
A Chinese fat-bellied, eccentric Zen priest (in the West often called "the laughing Buddha"), nicknamed Budai in Chinese. He may originally have been a 10th c. itinerant semi-legendary Buddhist monk, Qici (Keishi), who became a frequent subject in ink painting. Budai lived as a hermit in the mountains, but when he came to town he would carry a large cloth bag (budai) to collect alms, hence his nickname. He was a figure like the Tang Dynasty priests Hanshan and Shide, a man of "enlightened innocence" and thus a superior example of Zen values (in fact, in later times, his bag was therefore said to be always empty). Hotei was even thought to have been an incarnation of Miroku (Maitreya), the Buddha of the Future. He is shown with a broad smiling face, a large bare belly, loose garments, a bulging bag and a wooden staff. He is usually seated but may also be walking, dancing, or pointing at the moon. Sometimes he is followed by a group of playing children.

Written with the help of information from: Japan, An Illustrated Encyclopedia, by Kodansha; Essentials of Shinto, by Stuart Picken; JAANUS website; Japanese Wikipedia.