New Year's is a great time to be in Japan.
One New Year's practice that combines the traditional visit to a shrine or temple with enjoying a walk in the fine New Year's weather is a seven lucky gods pilgrimage. There are hundreds of these walking courses across the country.
The neighborhood of Shibamata, nestled against the Edogawa River in Tokyo's northeast, is perhaps best known as the hometown of Tora-san, the "loveable vagabond" character in 48 "Otoko wa Tsurai yo" feature-length films between 1969 and 1995. But it is also host to a seven lucky gods walk that gives you additional insights to this typical middle class neighborhood. The walk, with temple stops, can be completed in under two hours, but plan to take half a day to give yourself time for some side exploration of Tora-san's old stomping ground.
Begin your walk from Keisei Takasago Station. Ordinarily when bound for Shibamata, you would change here to the Keisei Kanamachi Line. But we're going to hoof it.
Go out the north exit and turn left. Follow the lane that runs parallel to the train tracks for about 250 meters to Kanzoji (note that you'll have to walk counter-clockwise around the walled temple grounds to reach its gate). This little temple can trace its history to the 15th century, although of course the current structure is much more recent.
While you're here, purchase a "shikishi" (white cardboard square) to have inscribed at each stop on the walk. The "shikishi" costs 200 yen and your stamp at each temple will cost another 200 yen. In addition to the commemorative souvenir you'll have when you've finished the walk, a map of the area showing each destination temple is printed on the back of the "shikishi," so it also helps keep you from losing your way.
The lucky god featured at Kanzoji is Jurojin, the god of longevity. Chinese in origin, he is often depicted carrying a scroll said to contain the secret to a long life.
Your next stop is Io-ji Temple, near Shin-Shibamata station on the Hokoso line. You could hop on the train from Takasago station, but it's a pleasant 20+ minute walk from Kanzoji, so why not walk? Remember, there's a map on the back of your "shikishi." About half of the walk is along a road called "Sakura Michi." In this season, of course, there are no sakura, but the spider-web pattern of the bare branches against a deep blue winter's sky provides a different perspective on the beauty of these trees.
Io-ji's two story belfry-cum-gate is striking, even though the temple is now cheek-by-jowl with surrounding apartment buildings. At Io-ji, you'll get a stamp commemorating Ebisu, the native Japanese god of commerce, fishermen and good fortune.
Your third stop, Hosho-in, is less than five minutes away, on the other side of the train tracks. Hosho-in sits amid a desert-like cemetery, with little to recommend it, except perhaps that it sports jonquils blooming even at New Year's. It is the home of Daikoku, the god of wealth, farms and the kitchen.
The walk to your next temple, Manpuku-ji, takes less than 10 minutes, passing through a pleasant little neighborhood and along a narrow pathway that was probably once a canal. At Manpuku-ji you can pay tribute to the god Fukurokuju, whose name means "fortune, happiness, and longevity." Fukurokuju is also known for his wisdom, depicted by his high forehead.
Now that you've completed more than half of your pilgrimage, allow yourself a little deviation, to visit a couple of the other famous spots of Shibamata. Just around the corner from Manpuku-ji are the Yamamoto-tei traditional garden and tea house and the Tora-san Kinenkan.
Unfortunately, Yamamoto-tei is currently closed for renovation (not reopening until December 2016) but the Tora-san Kinenkan (admission 500 yen) is an interesting little museum to all things Tora-san, including a replica of the family home/shop and displays on the various locations around Japan featured in the films.
When you've finished your museum visit, take a little time to sit out in the sun along the levy bank and watch the new year's kite flyers, too. Sometimes a Tora-san impersonator makes an appearance.
Just a little way upriver from the Tora-san Kinenkan is Yagiri Watashi, the only manual ferry boat crossing remaining on the Edogawa. Bearing in mind that the seven lucky gods usually sail their treasure boat into harbor at new year's, consider making the crossing as well, but be sure to make a round trip so that you can continue your walk.
The next temple is Taishakuten Daikyoji, a major religious establishment of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, as well as a regular feature in the Tora-san movies. In addition to picking up your stamp for Bishimonten, the god of war and warriors, be sure to explore the temple itself. The main building is covered in exquisite wood carvings depicting various scenes of Buddhist scripture and legend. They are surrounded by a glass "gallery" (admission 400 yen) that protects them while allowing visitors to view them in natural light and on two levels. Your gallery admission ticket also admits you to Suikei-en, the traditional Japanese garden behind the temple.
Sando, the approach to Taishakuten Daijyoji, stretches between Shibamata station and the temple. But you haven't finished your pilgrimage yet, so skip this for now and keep going to your next temple.
Temple #6 is Shinshoin, off the main road that runs paragraph to Taishakuten's Sando. Here you can commemorate the goddess Benten, the only female of the 7 lucky gods. Ordinarily Benten, the goddess of music and art, is depicted on an island or near water, but Shinshoin is, alas, dry. The artistic stone carvings of the five nyorai Buddhas offer some consolation.
The final stop on this pilgrimage is Ryoganji, across the Kanamachi line train tracks from the Kanamachi waterworks, less than 10 minutes from Shinshoin. Here you can receive the blessing of Hotei, the god of happiness and contentment. Like Santa Claus, Hotei, whose name means "cloth bag" always carries a bag containing an endless supply of gifts for children. He seems to fit particularly well here at Ryoganji, a temple known for the repose of the souls of unborn children. Interestingly, Ryoganji has pulled itself into the 21st century by also offering graves for family pets.
Now that you've successfully completed your seven lucky gods pilgrimage, make your way back to the Taishakuten Sando. Stay on the road that led you to Ryoganji, and you'll find yourself at the halfway point of the Sando. The Sando offers a wonderful variety of shops selling traditional sweets, snacks and souvenirs, many featuring Tora-san. Look for the shop called Toraya, made famous by the movies. You'll also find some nice little traditional restaurants featuring carp and eel.
As you move along the Sando away from Taishakuten, you'll eventually find yourself at the plaza in front of Shibamata Station. Here is a life-sized statue of Tora-san -- or of the late Kiyoshi Atsumi, the actor who played the character -- in his quintessential pose, suitcase in hand, looking over his shoulder as he once again sets out on his journey of life.
Now that you've gathered your luck for the year by completing your pilgrimage, and otherwise had an interesting time exploring Shibamata, you, too, are ready to return to your journey of life. Here's hoping 2016 is an interesting and luck-filled journey for you.© Japan Today