My favorite way to observe the new year in Japan is by a midnight visit to a shrine. But this year below freezing temperatures convinced me to stay at home at midnight and make my shrine visits in daylight–temperatures above freezing with a bit of a cold breeze. Consequently I decided to do a seven lucky gods walk.
The Japanese say that on new year’s morning the seven lucky gods sail into harbor on their treasure ship. To honor these seven, and ensure that they bestow good fortune in the coming year, it is popular to complete a pilgrimage to seven shrines and temples, each the home of a different god. There are a number of such pilgrimage courses across Tokyo and across Japan. I have completed (and written about) many of them but I have never had occasion to write about the one closest to my home, a course along the old Tokaido road.
Tokaido literally means “east ocean road” and during Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1867) it was one of the major roads between Kyoto and Edo (modern day Tokyo). The Seven Lucky Gods of Tokai is a walk in the vicinity of Shinagawa-juku, the first “post town” outside of Edo. It is supposed to be completed between January 1 and January 10.
Although the brochure produced by the consortium of shrines and temples involved in this pilgrimage recommends starting from Shinagawa and proceeding southward, I decided to start at the opposite end and make my way toward the city (okay, technically it’s all within the Tokyo metropolis now, but historically the walk was all outside the city’s precincts). Although the route is not a complicated one, there is a map at the end of this post.
Iwai Shrine (Benten)
Iwai Shrine is located about 250 meters south of Omori Kaigan station, facing Dai-Ichi Keihin, a national highway that runs roughly on the route of the old Tokaido. The shrine is said to be about 1,400 years old, substantially predating to old road. It has an affiliation with Hachiman, the ancient god of war, and also with Benten, one of the seven lucky gods. Benten, the only female of the seven, is the goddess of music and fine arts and she occupies a small sub-shrine on the shrine ground.
As a relatively large shrine for this neighborhood, during my visit on the morning of January 1, people were lined up to worship. Greeting the gods as early as possible in the new year is an important part of ensuring a good year to come and many who, like me, don’t want to go out in the middle of the night, will make their visits at other times during the first three days of the year.
Seven lucky gods pilgrimages are often commemorated by getting stamps or inscriptions on a shikishi, a piece of white cardboard used for such things. There are two such shikishi available for this particular pilgrimage, each sold for JPY1,000. The inscriptions the pilgrim gets at each stop on the walk usually cost around JPY100 each, although some temples charge no specific fee, but instead ask pilgrims to make a donation.
On this walk, pilgrims can also purchase a “treasure ship” (JPY1,000) and little figurines of each god (JPY300 each), which is what I chose for my pilgrimage.
Suwa Shrine (Fukurokuju)
It was about a 20 minute walk to the next stop on the pilgrimage, with a brief stop along the way at one of my favorite historical spots in this area: the Suzugamori Execution Ground. This is also a remnant of the Edo Period, when the shogunate executed criminals and left their heads on display as a warning to others entering the city of the fate that awaited them if they broke the law.
I’m particularly fond of the 1899 photo above, a scene that looks nothing like the area today which, thanks to 20th century landfill, is now quite far from the shoreline of the bay.
From this spot, the old Tokaido road and Dai-Ichi Keihin diverge, the old Tokaido becoming a somewhat winding narrow laneway.
After another 10 or 15 minutes I came to Suwa Shrine, a satellite of the famous shrines on the shores of Nagano’s Lake Suwa, dedicated to gods of hunting, rivers, and mountains. Even this Suwa Shrine, founded in the twelfth century, sits alongside a river, the Tachiaigawa. Here, too, there were a lot of people waiting to pay their respects to the gods.
I was impressed by how any ema (votive prayer plaques) had already been hung up in the new year, most also containing prayers for the new year.
I focused my attention on the subject of my pilgrimage, Fukurokuju (his name means fortune, happiness and longevity). Fukurokuju’s primary attribute is wisdom, as evidenced by his wise use of a mask in these COVID times. An elderly couple praying before me kindly explained that by rubbing the god’s extensive forehead, I could help preserve my own intellectual capacities. (I forget what else they told me…)
It’s about another 20 minutes to the next stop, but I made a small deviation to visit a statue of Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-1867) who was studying in Edo in 1853 when American Commodore Matthew Perry steamed his four warships into the bay to demand that Japan open itself to international trade. Sakamoto’s observations of the dynamic of the time is said to have influenced his political thinking, which then played a role in end of the shogunate.
On my way to the next stop I made a small deviation to visit a statue of Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-1867) on the shopping road toward Tachiaikawa Station. Sakamoto, originally from the Kochi area of Shikoku, was a young man studying in Edo in 1853 when American Commodore Matthew Perry steamed his four warships into the bay to demand that Japan open itself to international trade. Sakamoto’s observations of the dynamic of the time are said to have influenced his political thinking, which then played a role in the end of the shogunate.
Sakamoto, now admired as a forward thinker of his time, is also keeping up with our times by wearing a mask.
Honsenji is a favorite temple of mine because of its 2.75 meter Jizo statue, about which I have written elsewhere. Much to my surprise, Honsenji was not as crowded as the two shrines that I’ve already visited. Could it be that shrines are more popular places new year’s prayers than are? It seems very likely.
The lucky god to worship here is Bishamonten, the Indian-origin god of war. It’s almost ironic to have Bishamonten here, since this temple is home to a bell that is regarded as a symbol of peace.
Ebara Shrine (Ebisu)
Ebara Shrine, founded in 709, sits on the left bank of the Meguro River, with an attractive red bridge as its approach.
The Meguro River is the historic boundary between south Shinagawa-juku and north Shinagawa-juku. and Ebara Shrine is the guardian shrine of south Shinagawa-juku. Why, then, is it on the north side of the river? Apparently the river course changed after a flood about a hundred years ago, moving about 50 meters to the south.
As the god of fishing, Ebisu, the god here, probably doesn’t care which side of the river he’s on.
North Shinagawa-juku was always the busier part of Shinagawa-juku and that still seems to be the case.
Although it was closed today (reopening from January 4), the Shinagawa-juku Visitor Rest Center is a nice place to drop by when it is open. It has historic photos and other small exhibits on the history of Shinagawa-juku.
After I crossed Yamate-dori, I came upon a park that was the site of Shinagawajuku Honjin. Every juku had a “honjin”, accommodation maintained specifically for the use of government officials.
Just beyond this was Isshinji, an eighteenth century temple affiliated with Narita’s famous temple. This temple is quite small, with an intimate atmosphere and friendly priests and acolytes. Although this is probably the youngest temple, the god here is Jurojin, the god of longevity.
A couple dozen meters on is Yoganji, a temple founded in 1299 that is now a modern structure with no grounds to speak of. Here, too, are friendly staff, entirely in keeping with the generous spirit of Hotei, the god of happiness and contentment, a god who, like Santa Claus, carries a bag containing a never-ending supply of gifts for children.
Shinagawa Shrine (Daikokuten)
The last destination of my pilgrimage (or the first, for those who may choose to start from Shinagawa) is Shinagawa Shrine, where the god is Daikokuten, a god of wealth and prosperity.
Shinagawa Shrine, founded in 1187, is regarded as one of Edo’s 10 great shrines. It is also a very popular destination for new year’s prayers, with people lining up for dozens of meters at the bottom of the shrine’s approach steps.
At the top of the hill the shrine ground as spacious, with a few small subordinate shrines as well. In front of the shrine’s dance stage a small fire was burning, destroying last year’s amulets and other tokens of fortune.
I’ve now collected all seven gods, that I can put on their treasure ship, allowing them to figuratively sail around my house spreading good fortune. Is there any better start to a new year?
© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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