Finding serenity in the sea of humanity
It was just a subway trip to help the 2019 cohort of the Association for Promotion of International Cooperation (APIC) Japan Journalism Fellowship appreciate the public transportation system of the country, but the ride from Shimbashi, an area known for affordable eating and drinking appealing to the ‘salaryman’, to Asakusa station on the Tokyo Metro’s Ginza Line provided much more.
We were treated to unparalleled sensory immersion into some of the sights, sounds, and scents of contemporary Tokyo, which were unlike anything we could have anticipated. When this ride was over, we were all at least a little bit in wonder at the ancient architecture, craftsmanship, and traditions of the people of the Land of the Rising Sun.
At the entrance to the historic Buddhist temple built in 645, the crowd seemed impassable, but as we moved forward, it parted in an indiscernible but somewhat ordered manner as people stopped to buy and light incense, others sought to have their fortunes known, and some engaged in various purification rituals.
Intermingled with all this along the nakamise, the long shopping street leading to the temple, were the delicate aromas of streetside cooking as people sampled snacks and meals with varying accents competing as thousands of Japanese and their visitors interfaced in a seamless – almost unending – flow of humanity.
Their cultures, languages, and dress styles were worlds part as they each sought to achieve some semblance of inner peace, united by their common interest to be participants in something so much larger than themselves.
The approach to the Senso-ji, the oldest Buddhist capital temple in Tokyo, capital of Japan, known as Nakimase Dori, is lined with shops selling many and varied craft items, other souvenirs and lots of sweet and savoury snacks.
Senso-ji, with its five-storey pagoda, trails of incense, and vast eaves, provides a snapshot of a bygone era in Japanese history. Throughout the year, seasonal events are held on the temple grounds, including the very popular Asakusa-jinja Shrine’s Sanja Festival collaboration event in May, the hozuki (Chinese lantern plant) market in July, and the photogenic hagoita decorative paddle market in December.
The history of the temple is intriguing. Legend states that two fisherman caught a golden statue of Kannon – the merciful Nirvana achiever – in what is now the Sumida River. Despite trying to return the figure to the river multiple times, it always came back to them. Being recognised as Kannon, it was enshrined.
Although Senso-ji Temple was founded in 628, the current crimson building is much more modern as it was rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II.
For all intents and purposes, it should have been a typical day out in Tokyo for a first-time visitor, but I found myself quite at home, cushioned as I was within the comfort of the maddening crowd.
I made it all the way inside the temple, washed my hands to symbolically cleanse my body, and even tasted some of the water from the spring guarded by a Japanese warrior. I also sought to achieve some semblance of spiritual cleansing by standing close to an oversized brazier and channelling some of the incense smoke over and around my body just because I had seen some Japanese do it.
I felt cleaner, happier, and definitely much more upbeat than when I started out. On the trip back to our hotel, I was on top of the world, or at least atop of Tokyo – in my mind, at least.