Chasing an unusual seven lucky gods in Zoshigaya

A day walk in a pretty urban area is always fun. A walk with a mission, like collecting the stamps of seven lucky gods, is even more fun. I’ve written on several lucky gods walks to do at New Year’s but here’s one that can be done any time of year, takes about 3 hours, and has an interesting, feminine twist. While usually only one of the seven lucky gods is female, on this walk, three of them are. Read on.

Zoshigaya, a village in the district of Edo until Edo became Tokyo in the mid-19th century, is now a charming neighborhood situated east of Ikebukuro. It has many quaint features that can be easily explored while pursuing its unusual seven lucky gods.  Begin from Zoshigaya station on the Fukutoshin subway line or Kishibojinmae station on the Arakawa Toden streetcar line. To track your own progress, buy a shikishi (printed white cardboard square) at your first stop, Otori Jinja, and follow the map below.

The standard shikishi is JPY500 and is printed with “Zoshigaya 7 lucky gods” (in Japanese) down the center and the names of the gods and their respective temple or shrine around the perimeter. There will be a red stamp at each stop that you can use to stamp the shikishi commemorating your visit. If you want something a little fancier, the Zoshigaya Visitor Center (see map) sells two other designs of shikishi for JPY1,000 each, and it would be easy to stop by and pick one up before visiting Otori Jinja (see the map).

Otori shrines are found across Japan and are known as places to pray for success at making a living. This Otori Jinja was particularly popular with the local farmers who grew vegetables to be sold at Edo markets; it is where they would pray for a good crop. The eggplants of Zoshigaya were particularly well known and popular. Eggplants are still grown in pots on the shrine grounds to commemorate this bit of local history.

Another symbol of success at Otori Jinja is donation box shaped like a money bag, a design that is repeated in other decorations of the shrine.

When I visited, there was no one attending the shrine’s office, so I had to ring the doorbell to be served. I purchased my shikishi and received a complimentary disposable mask (a nod to the current contagion) even though I was already masked.IMG_5253

The priest then directed me across the courtyard to a table next to the temizusha (hand washing trough) where there was a red ink pad and a stamp for Otori Jinja’s representative in the seven lucky gods: Ebisu. His spot on the shikishi is the upper left-hand corner. Ebisu is a logical choice for Otori Jinja, since he’s a god of commerce. The nearby Ebisu statue is holding a large sea bream, his usual prop, and, in keeping with the rest of Otori Jinja’s “decor”, is perched atop a large money bag.

IMG_5265Just for a bit of fun and local charm, duck into some local laneways on your way to your next destination. These laneways are pedestrian only and zig-zag along.  You will even pass a local emergency water supply (for firefighting purposes) known as Nana-megari no mizu (lit. the water of the 7 bends). The water is not potable, but would certainly come in handy if there were ever a house fire, since firetrucks would be unable to get into this area.

Eventually you emerge from the narrow laneways onto the approach road for Kishimojin. This brick road is well known for its massive, aged and stately zelkova trees. If you haven’t already been there, drop by the Zoshigaya Visitor Center to say hello to the friendly staff and pick up some local information brochures.

Kishimojin temple is a fascinating spot. There are a couple of interesting legends to go with its nearly four centuries of history. Kishimojin is an ancient goddess who serves as guardian over safe births and healthy children. Parents are often seen here receiving blessings for their infants in ceremonies remarkably similar to those usually performed at Shinto shrines.

The temple is also famous for its susuki mimizuku, horned owl figurines made of local susuki grass.  The owl is the official animal of Toshima ward, but the horned owl of Kishimojin has particular significance here.  This area was once heavily wooded and horned owls were common. The legend is that a young girl named Kume whose father had died and whose mother was sick undertook to pray at Kishimojin for 100 days so that her mother might recover. At the end of her 100 days, the goddess spoke to Kume, advising her to reap the local susuki grass and use it to make mimizuku figurines to sell in front of the temple. The figurines proved to be popular with temple visitors, who decided they were lucky. Certainly they were lucky for Kume, who made enough money that she could purchase medicine to help her mother recover and restore the family’s financial security. You can still buy susuki mimizuku at the temple.

Perhaps in recognition of Kume’s success at accumulating wealth at this temple, the lucky god here is Daikoku, the god of wealth.  The ink pad and stamp are in a small hut on the right as you enter the temple grounds (the spot marked on the map). The place to stamp the shikishi is the upper right-hand corner.

IMG_5281It’s just a couple of minutes’ walk to the next stop, Kanjo-in, where you can pay homage to Benten, the goddess of music and fine arts.

Kanjo-in is one of a cluster of Nichiren temples on this lush and gentle hillside. While Benten shrines are usually found on small islands, so that the goddess is surrounded by water, there is no water to be seen here, except that in pails that can be splashed onto Benten’s image. On your shikishi, her stamp goes at the bottom center.

Continue up the hill, taking the laneway with the cemetery on your left. If, like me, you started your walk in mid-morning, you might be feeling like a little snack by now. Grip Provision on Azuma-dori has delightful fresh-baked pastries and delicious coffee, not to mention a friendly staff.

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Just a few steps beyond is your next destination, a small, apparently nameless shrine in front of the Nakano Building. Inside is Hotei, the god of happiness and contentment. If you’ve just had coffee and a pastry, doubtless you are both happy and contented.

Hotei is known for his round belly and the cloth bag he carries, from which he can extract an endless supply of gifts. This Hotei has a curious piggy face and a Hotei Jr. companion. On your shikishi, stamp the lower left-hand corner.

Once again, it’s just a couple of minutes’ walk to the next destination, Senkoji, a Nichiren Buddhist temple founded during the Edo Period (1603-1868). The current temple building is a modern ferro-concrete structure built just a couple of years ago that looks more like an apartment building than a temple…until you step inside. The main sanctuary contains a massive, unadorned wood carving of a serene Buddha that appears to be floating above the floor of the chamber.

The goddess to visit here is in a small alcove to the right of the main sanctuary. She is known as Hana no Fukurokuju, a female version of the god of happiness, wisdom and longevity who is one of the usual 7 lucky gods. On your shikishi, stamp the lower right-hand corner.

From here it’s about a kilometer to the next destination. The route on the map takes you through part of the Zoshigaya Cemetery, where you may want to take a couple of minor deviations to see the graves of some of the famous people buried here.  First, look for the grave of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), the Irish-Greek writer who became a Japanese citizen, took the name Koizumi Yakumo (the name on his grave), and wrote extensively to introduce Japan to the English-speaking world. While Hearn died embittered by his treatment by Japanese officials, he is much loved in Japan as is demonstrated by frequent visitors to his grave and the gifts or flowers they leave. Not far away is the grave of Tojo Hideki (1884-1948), the army general and war-time Prime Minister of Japan who was convicted of war crimes and hung at Sugamo Prison (now the Sunshine City complex) about 500 meters north of Zoshigaya Cemetery. As a Japanese acquaintance explained to me, “he was a kind of scapegoat, taking the blame and dying to absolve the rest of us from any wrongdoing in the war”. That’s one way of looking at it, anyway.

There are two other graves I recommend visiting, but first, proceed to Seiryuin, another Nichiren temple sitting below the cemetery, where you can collect a stamp for Bishamonten, the god of war (perhaps especially apt if you’ve stopped to see Tojo’s grave). The stamp goes on the center-left. Be sure to check out the 11-headed Kannon statue behind the temple and the stone etching of the area during the Edo Period standing in front of it.

It’s also about a kilometer walk to the final destination, so break the journey by meandering through another section of Zoshigaya cemetery and stopping by a couple more famous graves.  The first is the grave of Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), a novelist and scholar of literature, whose novels often depicted characters struggling with the social challenges creating by Japan’s rapid modernization at the end of the 19th century. Finally, on the edge of the cemetery, is the grave of John Manjiro (also known as Nakahama Manjiro, 1827-1898), who was one of the first Japanese to have prolonged contact with Westerners and to attempt to introduce aspects of Western culture to Japan. As a boy in 1841, John Manjiro was a shipwrecked fisherman rescued by an American whaler that carried him to the U.S. He eventually found his way back to Japan and served the last of the Tokugawa shoguns, helping to introduce various aspects of Western knowledge. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, he became a professor at the Tokyo Imperial University.

Follow the map closely through the labyrinth of residential streets to the back entrance to Seido Kishimojin.  (Note, you will pass very close to the Old McCaleb Missionary House, a 19th century Western-style home that is now a museum marked on the map, in case you want to have another diversion.)

As the name suggests, Seido Kishimojin is also a temple dedicated to the guardian of safe births and healthy children, although this place is much quieter and obviously less popular. The goddess to visit here is Kisshoten, a Japanized version of the Indian goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty, fertility and good fortune. The Japanese say that she is the wife of Bishamonten.

You’ll find you now have seven red stamps on your shikishi, not counting the central red stamp it came with, and your pilgrimage is complete.

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Exit through the main gate of Seidokishimonjin and follow Shinobazu-dori to Gokokuji subway station, just a few minutes away. If you’re really hungry, pick up some “take away” yakitori while waiting to cross Hinode-dori and have a little picnic on the benches near the temple gate by the subway entrance.

Hopefully you’ve found this pilgrimage walk a good excuse to explore some less well-known corners of Tokyo while maintaining safe social distance!

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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