Japan has many New Year’s traditions meant to ensure fortune in the year to come. One of the most fun ones is also a way to get out but still observe the social distancing that is advisable in the ongoing pandemic conditions: a seven lucky gods pilgrimage.
In the Japanese pantheon, there is a group of gods known as seven lucky gods who are said to sail into harbor at new year’s on their treasure ship. Honoring them during the new year’s period is thought to be a way to secure good fortune for the coming year. It’s also a nice way to enjoy the fine weather that usually occurs at new year’s.
In Tokyo, seven lucky gods walks often involve centuries-old shrines and temples in the older neighborhoods that made up Edo, the old name for Tokyo.
One such course is the Shitaya Seven Lucky Gods course in an area of Taito-ku that was once known as Shitaya. While this area has centuries of history, it’s not usually on the tourist trail, making it a bit of a hidden gem, quiet with a shitamachi feel.
The course takes about 90 minutes, walking between Uguisudani Station on the Yamanote line and Minowa Station on Hibiya subway line. It doesn’t matter which way pilgrims travel.
From January 1 to January 15 every year, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., pilgrims can purchase a small “treasure ship” and figurines of the seven gods or put red stamps on a shikishi to commemorate their pilgrimage. There are three different shikishi designs. Two are the traditional white cardboard squares, although one is more colorful and identifies each god in romanized lettering. The simplest one is 400 yen; the more colorful one is 500 yen. Each stamp costs 100 yen.
The third is rectangular and is an artistic rendering of the seven gods. Pilgrims can place red stamps over each. One of the priests related that this third version is popular with people who hope to use the shikishi to decorate their home or office. This one costs 1,000 yen and the stamps, which include calligraphy applied by a priest at each location, are 200 yen each.
Moto-Mishima Shrine (Jurojin)
Jurojin, originally from China, is the god of longevity. It is perhaps appropriate that for this pilgrimage he is associated with Moto-Mishima Shrine, originally founded around 1280 and in this location since the early 18th century. The current shrine structure is a modern ferro-concrete affair building in the 1970s. It stands above a labyrinth of narrow laneways dominated by love hotels, a far cry from the farming village it once was.
This is the only shrine among the seven stops on this pilgrimage and one of only two places where pilgrims can buy the treasure ship and gods figurines.
Iriya Kishibojin (Fukurokuju)
The name Fukurokuju literally means fortune, happiness and longevity. He is often depicted carrying a scroll said to contain all the wisdom of the world. Fukurokuju is another import from China and is said to possess the ability to bring the dead back to life. Perhaps for this reason he can be found at Iriya Kishibojin. Kishibojin is Buddhist goddess of fertility and safe childbirth, a continuation of the circle of life. But she was originally an Indian demon goddess, the mother of child-eating demons who repented and reformed when converting to Buddhism. Iriya Kishibojin is one of three Kishibojin temples in Tokyo.
Iriya Kishibojin is especially famous for its morning glory market, held in early July every year. During the Edo Period this area was known for cultivating morning glories, making it the subject of a number of well-known woodblock prints.
Eishinji, the cozy little temple that is home to the next god, was founded in the mid-17th century and has a long affiliation with the powerful Matsudaira clan that provided a number of Tokugawa shoguns.
The lucky god to honor here is Daikokuten, an Indian import regarded as the god of wealth, farmers and the kitchen. He is usually depicted standing on bales of rice, carrying a sack of treasure and a magic mallet. His statuette, said to have been carved by the great Buddhist evangelist Kobo Daishi (774-835), is particularly distinctive because it has three faces. The primary face is that of Daikokuten, while on the left and right are faces of the other two Indian-origin lucky gods: Benzaiten and Bishamonten.
Hoshoji is another mid-17th century temple, although it has only been at its current location since the mid-18th century and had to be rebuilt after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. One interesting tidbit about Hoshoji is that it is the final resting place of Hachiro Tako (1940-1985), a popular comedian and professional boxer.
Being a boxer, did Tako choose this temple because of its affiliation with Bishamonten, the god of war, perhaps?
Pilgrims ready for a little diversion from their pilgrimage might want to set across the street behind Hoshoji to visit Ono Terusaki Shrine. This ancient shrine (founded more than a thousand years ago) is famous for its miniature Mt Fuji (only open for climbing on June 30 and July 1 each year). It is also a popular place for students and performing artists to pray for success. One popular success story is that of Kiyoshi Atsumi, best known as Tora-san in the "Otoko wa Tsurai yo" movies, who got his first big break after praying here.
Benten-in (Asahi Benzaiten)
Benzaiten, also known as Benten, is the third of the Indian-origin gods and the only female of the seven lucky gods. She is the goddess of music and fine arts. She is usually housed on an island, surrounded by water as her familiar is the dragon, which is said to move best through water. At Benten-in, there is just a small pond; no island.
Tobi Fudo (Ebisu)
Tobi Fudo is the popular name for Shoboin, a temple founded in 1530. Tobi means flying. According to legend, a Fudo statue that the temple’s chief priest had taken with him on a journey flew itself back to the temple in answer to prayers of the local people who then began to call the temple Tobi Fudo. After that, the icon came to be regarded as a god who flies to answer prayers. In modern times, Tobi Fudo is a popular god with people about to make plane journeys.
Ebisu is the only native Japanese god of the lucky seven. He is said to be the son of Daikokuten and is usually depicted holding a fish and a fishing pole. Although he is primarily regarded as the god of commerce, fishermen and good fortune, he is also regarded as the god of safe voyages, which helps explain his affiliation with Tobi Fudo.
Just a block and a half from Tobi Fudo is a small monument identifying the former residence of novelist Ichiyo Higuchi (1872-1896), whose face currently graces the Japanese five thousand yen note. Another couple of blocks away is a museum dedicated to the work of the author. While this museum is most interesting to those familiar with Japanese literature, there is a diorama of this Shitaya neighborhood in Ichiyo’s time, which is worth a look.
Jueji was founded in 1630 and has a long association with the second Tokugawa shogun, Hidetada and his wife. It is also closely associated with Chion-in, a major temple in Kyoto.
The lucky god here is Hotei, last of the Chinese-origin gods in the pantheon. In China he is often referred to as the fat Buddha, because of his rotund physique. His name literally means “cloth bag” and he is usually depicted holding a cloth bag that contains a never-ending supply of gifts, especially for children, making him a bit like Santa Claus. For pilgrims he offers the gift of happiness and contentment.
This course doesn’t take long to complete and is a great way to start the new year.
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