In Japan, various rituals and activities can be undertaken to bring on good luck or good fortune. These are especially popular at New Year’s, when one’s slate has been wiped clean to begin again.
One such activity is the Seven Lucky Gods Pilgrimage, a walking course to visit and pay homage to Japan’s seven lucky gods, who are said to sail into port on their “lucky ship” at dawn every New Year’s Day. Each of the seven are housed at a different shrine or temple on a fixed course. There are more than 200 such courses dotted across Japan. Most can be completed in a few hours, a perfect outing in the mild weather that is prevalent at New Year’s. Pilgrims (or walkers, if you prefer) collect stamps on a white cardboard square shikishi or even some kind of tokens at each stop to commemorate their walk. Usually the stamps or tokens are only available for a fixed number of days in early January.
The stamps and other souvenirs for the Seven Lucky Gods Pilgrimage of Sakura, an Edo Period (1603-1868) castle town in Chiba about an hour from central Tokyo and not far from Narita, are available not only at New Year’s (from January 1 through 10) but also on the 10th day of every month, offering an opportunity to pick up a little extra luck at any time of the year. Good to know if you have other plans for your New Year’s holidays. On the pilgrimage’s open days, the shikishi and stamps are available for purchase at each stop of the pilgrimage (shikishi, 400 yen; stamps at each stop are 200 yen). There is also a special tenugui hand towel available for purchase (500 yen), a more practical memento of the experience. Also a bit unusual, this course has seven stops, but nine stamps are collected, as there are two duplicates (at the “double” stops, 300 yen is charged for the two stamps).
It may be worth noting that this place name, Sakura, does not mean cherry blossom but is written with kanji characters that mean “hemp warehouse”. This region of Chiba was once a major hemp producer and it is thought that even before Sakura became a castle town, its economy was driven by the hemp trade.
The walk begins from Keisei-Sakura Station and finishes at JR Sakura station for a total distance just over four kilometers, passing through a surprising variety of suburb-scapes. A map is provided below to help guide walkers.
Jindaiji, the first stop on this walk, is a 7 or 8 minute walk from Keisei-Sakura Station. To follow the map, look for a narrow laneway leading to stairs up the hill on the left, about five minutes from the station. (Note: the walk map distributed by the tourist information office near the station does not use this scenic shortcut.)
The temple was founded in 1615, during Sakura’s ascendancy as a castle town protecting Edo (present day Tokyo) to its west. It has a close association with the Hotta family, historic lords of Sakura Castle. The temple cemetery contains the grave of penultimate castle lord Masatomo (1810-1864), a skilled administrator and renowned man of letters, particularly known for his representation of the shogun in early negotiations with Townsend Harris (1804-1878), the first American Consul-General in Japan.
At Jindaiji, get a stamp for Bishamonten, the god of war (and therefore, bringer of peace). A stone statue of a rather grumpy-looking god stands in the front garden of the temple.
Reinanji, just down the road from Jindaiji, is another early Edo Period temple, founded in 1642. The temple houses a number of Buddhist art treasures so rare they are only displayed to the public once a year, including precious images of Enma, the Buddhist king of hell, who determines the fate of all who enter his domain, and his acolytes.
Reinanji is also home to an image of an eight-armed Benten, the goddess of music and fine arts and the only female of the seven lucky gods. Benten is traditionally depicted with only two arms, holding a biwa lute, but according to the information at Reinanji, this eight-armed version is the original depiction of Benten, a goddess imported from India.
Across the road from Reinanji stands Soenji, the third stop on this walk. Also established by Hotta family retainers in 1642, it is home to a stone statue of Jurojin, the god of longevity.
Collecting three stamps in quick succession has hopefully motivated walkers for the rest of the walk, which involves a bit more distance between stops.
Shorinji (Bishamonten, again)
The walk from Soenji to the next stop, Shorinji, winds into a small valley and then climbs out again. The climb is called Shita-Nagaya Slope. Nagaya means row house and apparently there were once a lot of row houses in this area, which is now just a modern residential area.
Shorinji also dates to the early seventeenth century, although the details of its exact founding have been lost. The temple sits across from Sakura’s summary courthouse and is usually so quiet that it almost feels derelict. But it comes to life during the seven lucky gods pilgrimage season, when pilgrims visit here to collect a second Bishamonten stamp. As quiet as this temple is, with Bishamonten, the warrior god, as its guardian, it is sure to persevere.
The walk from Shorinji to Myoryuji, one of the oldest temples on this walk, takes less than 10 minutes and traverses a part of the old Narita Kaido that was once lined with traditional shop houses. Only a couple remain today, identifiable by historical markers that are, alas, only in Japanese. The final leg of the walk passes through a verdant glen before reaching the hilltop temple, founded in 1471, that is home to Daikokuten, god of wealth, farmers and the kitchen. He is usually depicted standing atop two bales of rice, also a symbol of wealth, farmers and meals.
Be sure to say hello to the monk, Ekou Murakami, and her family, who have recently returned from a few years of missionary work in Seattle. The young Murakami children seem to love the chance to use their English and their mother is an enthusiastic and gracious soul. If you can’t find Banjindo, the little path away from the temple’s parking lot that leads to the next destination, she will happily help.
Makata Shrine (Ebisu and Fukurokuju)
Makata Shrine is the only shrine on this pilgrimage. As is often the case, shrines, sites of Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion, are older than temples. Makata Shrine is so old that its exact origins are unknown. It has featured in literature about this region for centuries and its role has evolved with the town, even becoming the guardian shrine for Sakura Castle when it was built just down the road at the end of the plateau.
Two of the seven lucky gods make Makata Shrine their home: Fukurokuju, whose statue is just to the right as you face the shrine, and Ebisu, around the back on the left-hand side of the shrine building. The former is the god of fortune, happiness and longevity who has the ability to perform miracles while the latter is the god of commerce, fishermen and good fortune. He is usually depicted with a fishing pole in one hand and a sea bream tucked under the other arm.
The tokens containing paper fortunes sold at Makata Shrine are papier mache fish. This may be a nod to Ebisu’s presence, but Konpira, Japan’s ancient god of seafarers is one of the deities enshrined here, so this symbolism may also be in his honor.
Daishoin (Hotei and Daikokuten, again)
The seventh stop in this walk is Daishoin, founded in 1471. Here pilgrims can collect two final stamps, one for Hotei, the god of happiness and contentment (the emotion evoked when one finishes a pilgrimage), and the other a second stamp for Daikokuten. There are stone statues of both gods in the temple’s garden, along with other stone carvings including statues of the 500 arhat disciples of Buddha.
Ideas for the rest of your day in Sakura
Daishoin sits at the end of a street that was once lined with the homes of samurai retainers associated with Sakura Castle. Three old samurai houses have been preserved and are open to visitors, a perfect add-on to the end of the pilgrimage. Learn more about those houses, a hillside path lined with bamboo, and the “samurai forest” here. From here it’s a 10 minute walk to JR Sakura Station to return to Tokyo.
Sakura Castle once stood on a nearby escarpment, standing guard over the eastern approach to Edo. While the castle is long gone, some of its ramparts remain and the grounds are now a public park. It is also the site of the National Museum of Japanese History, a large, well-curated museum worthy of repeated visits. There is usually a shuttle bus running between the museum and Keisei Sakura Station.
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
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