It’s the new year, a new beginning when people often set goals for their year. In Japan, it’s also common to take various measures to ensure that the year is a lucky one. These can range from visiting a shrine as early as possible in the new year to eating special symbolic foods. One popular activity calculated to generate good luck is a pilgrimage to a fixed course of shrines and temples to pay homage to the seven lucky gods (shichiukujin), who are said to sail into the harbor on their “treasure ship” at the new year.
From Jan 1 through 7, try this pleasant little walk from Myogadani subway station, finishing at Tokyo Dome City, where you can treat yourself to a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame, or ride a rooftop roller coaster, or step back in time at the 17th century Koishikawa Korakuen strolling garden. The distance is only about four kilometers and can be completed in 1½ to 2 hours.
While lucky gods walks were first popularized a few centuries ago, the Koishikawa Seven Lucky Gods walk is more recent. It was actually developed this century, starting in January 2005 as one of a number of neighborhood revitalization projects encouraged by the government around that time. That is not to say that many of the participating temples aren’t historical, as you’ll learn on your walk. Most of the temples on this walk were founded in the 17th century.
From Myogadani subway station, take exit 2 and go left. Look for the narrow road heading downhill and take it. After about 200 meters, the gate of Takushoku University will be on your right and at the corner on your left is a driveway/staircase leading to your first stop, Jinkoji, a Buddhist temple founded in 1639.
To make your pilgrimage count, you’ll need to collect proof that you have visited each site. You have two options. You can buy a map/pamphlet for 100 yen or you can buy a shikishi, a kind of white cardboard square that is popularly used for autographs and inscriptions for 500. The latter is more suitable for displaying at your home or office, if you’re really wanting those bragging rights. Both have preprinted spaces for stamps or inscriptions (go-shuin) from each stop on this pilgrimage. Putting stamps on the pamphlet is free of charge; go-shuin inscriptions usually cost 300 yen each.
The god to see at Jinkoji is Ebisu, the god of fishermen and merchants. He has pride of place in front of the temple itself. Jinkoji’s cemetery is famous as the final resting place of Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848), a poet and author known for writing yomihon (books for reading) in an age when picture books and books of recitations where also popular. Curiously, there is also a “Christian” lantern on the temple grounds. This neighborhood appears to have some Christian history, even during the Edo Period when Christianity was outlawed.
Take a hard left at the bottom of Jinkoji’s driveway and proceed through the larger of two underpasses beneath the subway track (which happens to be above ground here). Turn left where you see a red-capped Jizo statue and trellis of wisteria (just brown vines in the winter cold). Inscribed on the temple’s gate is its nickname, Fuji-dera, so-named for its wisteria. Even Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651), the third Tokugawa shogun, stopped to admire the wisteria here when he was falconing in the area. Make a mental note to come back in May when the wisteria is blooming. It must be spectacular.
After your left turn, climb the somewhat steep hill, known as Fuji-zaka, and turn left again to find the entrance to Tokuunji in about 60 meters. This little temple fell on hard times during the Meiji period, as did most Buddhist temples, but managed somehow to survive and is now squeezed in among a number of modern buildings. For purposes of your pilgrimage, you will pay your respects to the “male Benten”.
Benten, the goddess of music and fine arts, is the only female in the seven lucky gods pantheon. Yet here, Benten is a male, coiled in a snake, Benten’s traditional messenger, with only the head protruding at the top.
Returning to the top of Fuji-zaka, cross Kasuga-dori and take a stroll down the middle of the cherry tree-lined parkway (another mental note of a place to return to in spring). Locals told me this spot is particularly vivid in cherry blossom season because the massive Yoshino cherry trees are on a slope, increasing the amount of seasonal pink in one’s view.
At the first spot where a street cuts across the parkway, cross to the right and continue down the hill another couple dozen meters to the entrance to Koishikawa Park Tower. In the early 15th century, this was the site of a shrine built to honor a spring known as Gokuraku-sui (Paradise Water) where a female dragon god was said to reside. The spring can still be found in the small garden on the high side of the tower. The small shrine is your spot to honor the female Benten (it’s a very small step from “female dragon god” to Benten). You can collect the stamp or go-shuin for this Benten at your next stop.
Leave the Gokuraku-sui garden on the opposite side from where you came in and turn left, continuing down the hill to Sokeiji temple. Although now housed in a modern building on a small plot, the temple’s original, more expansive precincts, encompassed Gokuraku-sui.
The god to see at Sokeiji is Jurojin, the god of longevity. Since Sokeiji, founded in 1415, is the oldest temple on this pilgrimage, that sort of fits. Get stamps or inscriptions at Sokeiji for both Benten and Jurojin.
Go back the way you came, but continue up the hill on this road and turn left at the first traffic light. After about 300 meters, turn right and you’ll soon see the entrance to Shinjuin on your right. This is another very modern temple building, with a number of traditional features on the temple grounds, including a carving of the seven lucky gods on their treasure ship and a placid statue of Kannon.
Take the staircase on the left of the temple entrance to reach the temple’s cemetery, a much larger affair than one might suppose from the front of the temple. Make your way through the labyrinth of graves to the back, where you’ll find a cheery-looking statue of Hotei, the god of happiness and contentment. Hotei’s name means “cloth bag”. He carries a cloth bag from which he extracts a never-ending supply of gifts, making him especially popular with the kiddies. Sound like anyone we know?
Turn right from Shinjuin and proceed up the hill. At the end of the road, turn left. You’ll soon see the large temple gate of Denzuin on the left. This historic temple is of the same vintage as Sokeiji. Although it’s not part of this pilgrimage, it’s worth a look in. The mother of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868, was buried on this hilltop in 1602 and the temple moved to this location to look after her grave. Over time, other Tokugawa wives and children were also buried here; the stone markers of their graves are particularly distinctive.
With the Denzuin gate at your back, you’ll find your next destination, Fukujuin, inside the playground of the kindergarten on the right. Once a part of the Denzuin temple complex, this 18th century temple is the home of Daikoku, the god of wealth. Fukujuin’s statue of Daikoku is a particularly famous and auspicious one that was especially popular during the Edo Period.
Equally interesting on the edge of the playground is a statue of the “Togarashi Jizo”, a statue of Jizo sporting a necklace of dried chili peppers. The legend is that this statue was erected in memory of an old lady who was advised not to eat chili peppers because they gave her a sore throat. She loved the peppers and couldn’t give them up, eventually meeting her demise as a result. The statue has become a place to pray for relief from a sore throat.
Continue on the road running past the Denzuin gate, which takes you down a hill known as Zenkoji-zaka, past a massive and venerable Muku tree (Aphananthe aspera) and a couple more attractive temples, one of which is a satellite of Nagano’s famous Zenkoji. Turn right at the busy street at the bottom of the hill. This is a popular local market area where you may find all kinds of everyday items. It calls itself the Emma Shopping Street in honor of the Emma statue at Genkakuji.
You’ll reach Genkakuji temple in about 200 meters. The temple was founded in 1624 and is already planning how it will celebrate its 400th anniversary. It was particularly popular with the Tokugawa family and is where you can honor Bishamonten, the god of war.
Genkakuji is most famous for its statue of Emma-o, the overlord of hell. The statue is deep inside the temple, but on the temple veranda is a picture of the statue in front of which worshippers have piled small bags of konyaku, a gelatinous food made of a plant called devil’s tongue. According to legend, in the 18th century, an old woman with an eye complaint prayed to this Emma for relief. The Emma decided to exchange one of his eyes for one of hers, thus restoring her sight. To this day, one eye in the statue is an odd yellow color.
To show her gratitude to the Emma, the old woman brought an offering of konyaku. It has become popular to pray here for relief from eye complaints and accompany the prayer with an offering of konyaku.
Turn right on leaving Genkakuji and you’ll see the Tokyo Dome at the end of the street in front of you. This entire complex is on a site that was once the Edo home of the Mito clan. In the late 19th century, the Imperial Japanese Army Tokyo Arsenal was built on the site. After the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, the arsenal was relocated and the area converted to use for public entertainment.
Tokyo Dome City, the amusement park next to stadium, is on two levels. Take stairs to the upper level and proceed toward Geopolis (if Tokyo Dome where you entered the site is 12 o’clock, you want to go to about 5 o’clock). Tucked away next to the Corocco ride is a statue of Fukurokuju, the god of happiness, wealth and longevity, and the last god in your quest. It’s positioning was apparently determined with reference to the old Mito home; it’s a bit hard to find. Get your stamp at the ticket/information office on the opposite side of the open air space.
You now have stamps from the eight destinations you’ve visited (two Bentens, remember?) and have successfully completed your pursuit for good fortune in the coming year. May 2020 bring you all the good fortune you collected, and more!
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today