The air is full of the smell of smoke and sound of rattling.
Beside me, dressed in baby pink and royal blue kimonos, a couple energetically rattle a cylindrical tin.
I am shaking a tin of my own, a chopstick-like shape jutting out from a hole in the top. My heart starts racing as I pull the slender stick from the tin and check the Japanese kana character on its base. After all, it will determine my fortune.
I passed beneath the 600-kilogram lantern of Kaminari-mon or Thunder Gate. I braved the crowds on the Nakamise-dori street-market, buying myself a delicate paper fan from a talkative grandmother of eight. I paid my respects to the giant waraji, straw sandals 4.5 metres in size that represent Buddha’s power.
I finally made it to Senso-ji.
Nestled in the shitamachi or ‘old town’ district of Asakusa, Senso-ji is more than 1000 years old and is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple.
It’s jam-packed with tourists and locals alike. The complex is remarkably beautiful, especially at this time of day as the sun begins to set and the temple lights up with a warm, lantern-like glow. Senso-ji offers a special connection to old Japan.
Senso-ji is fabulous for families with kids. There’s plenty to see and do. As long as you are reverent and participate in the right spirit, visitors are welcomed to join the rituals and processes associated with temple life. This makes a trip to Senso-ji a hands-on and interactive experience of Japanese history, religion and tradition. It’s also a lesson in respect and encourages kids to appreciate cultural difference.
Standing in the courtyard in front of the main temple stairs, you will hear the rattling. Look to your left and right and you’ll see shelves and shelves of tiny drawers, marked in elegant calligraphy. Curious, I joined the small crowd milling beside the drawers, paid my 100 yen (the equivalent of a gold coin donation) and shook the tin cylinder.
The idea is that a wooden chopstick falls out of the tin, and you open the drawer with the corresponding character to reveal a slip of paper telling your fortune. If you get a bad fortune, you roll the paper up, tie it on to a wire strung up nearby, pray to the gods and try again.
After one false start, I received a good fortune, aptly urging me to relish in new things and embark on travel adventures wherever I could. Heartened, I moved to the centre of the courtyard where incense was burning inside a huge metal pot. Worshippers and visitors are invited to waft the smoke over their clothes for good health.
At the entrance to most temples and shrines is a chozuya or temiyuza, a special water fountain and basin. Its purpose is a ritual of purification.
First, you scoop a cupful of water holding the ladle with your right hand. Pour water over your left hand and then over your right hand. Rinse your mouth with water from your left hand, never touching your mouth to the ladle. There is usually a trough or recess below the font for you to spit out the water. Tip the ladle toward you to let the remaining water run down the handle.
You’ll find many of these practices occur at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines across Japan. As lovely as Senso-ji is, I strongly recommend you visit several of Tokyo’s places of worship to experience their distinct atmosphere and unique features. Rituals differ slightly at Shinto shrines, for example, where crossing the torii (gate) threshold is a symbolic act and there is a strict procedure for prayer. At the altar of a shrine, you toss a coin into the box, bow twice deeply, clap twice, pay your respects and then bow once deeply again.
In tourist-dense areas, shrines and temples include instructions in Japanese and English at each step of the way, so show your respect by adhering to proper practice.
Top 3 Temples and Shrines in Tokyo
This Shinto shrine, enclosed within an elaborate garden, is dedicated to Emperor Meiji’s reign (1868-1912) and to prosperity, modernisation and intercultural harmony. Located in the Harajuku district, it boasts the biggest Myojin wooden torii or gate in Japan. Made out of 1500-year-old Japanese cypress, the grand shrine gate is 12 metres tall with a 17-metre-long crosspiece. At the entrance, you’ll also find rows of sake barrels opposite rows of wine barrels from Bourgogne, an offering to the late Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken in a spirit of multi-culturalism.
Tsukiji Hongan-ji temple
Perhaps I loved this temple as much as I did because of the warm welcome I received upon entering. At Tsukiji the elderly volunteer took me under his wing when I entered the temple and showed me around. So much of travel is about encountering local people. A warm welcome will always make for great memories.
Founded in the Edo-era in 1617, the temple belongs to Jodo Shintu Buddhists. It’s recognised by the Japanese government as Important Cultural Property. My self-proclaimed guide took me by the arm, urging me with a huge smile to take as many photos as I wanted. We watched quietly as robed boys and girls set up the ornate altar for a ceremony. My guide explained the temple was dedicated to Buddha of refuge. It was a peaceful and hospitable stop en route to the sensory overload of the Tsukiji fish markets.
Not far from the northern district of Ueno, Nezu is another shitamachi district located on the Chiyoda subway line. It’s home to the Nezu-jinja, an early 18th-century shrine – my favourite of all the shrines I visited in Tokyo.
As I entered, a lady handing out pamphlets asked me where I was from and commented on how lucky the timing of my visit was. A sea of pink and purple azaleas washed over the slope leading down to the shrine. They matched the bright colours of the torii (gates) which stood in picturesque rows leading to smaller shrines on the hillside. The torii made for great photo opportunities and fun tunnels for little legs to run through.
I loved walking through the surrounding district of Nezu and oldtown Yanaka, each street laden with electrical wiring and potted plants. I peeked in one driveway to see a small husky licking its paws on the steps of well-tended garden. I moved on thinking it was a private shrine, only to stop a few houses up at another ornate building shadowed by a huge orange tree. To my surprise, the whole district turned out to be an elaborate network of temples, shrines, memorials and historical sites such as the Daimyo Clock Museum, an Edo-era sake store and the grave of Confucian scholar Ota Kinjo who died in 1825.
For more Tokyo-inspired, family-friendly fun, read about Disneyland and DisneySea here – which should you choose?