Monday 28 December 2020

Praying for a Better - and Healthier - 2021 at Toshogu Shrine, Ueno's Hidden Gem

As 2020 draws to a close most Japanese are getting ready for hatsumōde (初詣), the first shrine visit of the year when people pray for good fortune. After a 2020 to forget, it is not to difficult to imagine what people will be wishing for this time round but if you're looking to avoid the queues - Meiji Shrine typically sees some three million visitors in the first three days of January - I recommend the much quieter and older Toshogu Shrine (東照宮) in Ueno - established in 1627 and dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, previously one of the "Great Unifiers" of Japan but now a powerful deity that visitors can pray to for good luck.

Not only is Toshogu Shrine less crowded than many others, it is also noticeable for its fusion of different styles: while the shrine itself is obviously a Shinto monument it is located on the premises of Kan'eiji (寛永寺), a Buddhist Temple and features a 32m 5-storied pagoda built in 1631. As I wrote  earlier in my post on the old capital Kamakura, until the 1868 Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order (神仏判然令), the two religions were freely mixed and combined. In Meiji, the pagoda was only spared demolition because it belonged to Kan'eiji Temple. The Buddhist influence can also be seen in the golden Chinese-style gate (karamon=唐門) on the main shrine building, decorated with hand-carved flowers and birds and protected by two dragons - ascending and descending - carved into the gate pillars (these dragons are said to go to the nearby Shinobazu Pond every night to drink!).

A third  pointer to the Chinese influence are the 50 unique copper lanterns (tōrō=灯籠) lining the approach to the shrine (red dots in the map above). While such lanterns were originally used only in Buddhist temples mainly for illumination purposes, here they are not used for lighting but rather for purification: as we have seen before, purity and impurity are key elements in Shinto. As well as the copper lanterns there are also many more stone lanterns which begin when one walks through the stone torii gate which marks the entrance to the shrine (blue dots on the map). 

A final unusual feature of the shrine is the monument holding the eternal flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, decorated with thousands of paper cranes. As detailed in a previous post, the cranes come from the story of Sadako Sasaki who developed leukaemia after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and folded more than 1000 cranes in a futile attempt to prolong her life. While today they have become a symbol of peace they are also a broader reminder of the sanctity of life. As such, they may well serve as a potent reminder to visitors who come in the early days of 2021 to pray for health, longevity, and recovery from illness - things I wish for all of my loyal readers in the coming year.

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