Sensoji: the famous Buddhist temple in Asakusa, Tokyo
Michaël da Silva Paternoster
Sensoji: the famous Buddhist temple in Asakusa, Tokyo
Sensoji: the famous Buddhist temple in Asakusa, Tokyohttps://nipponrama.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/senso-ji.jpg19001267Michaël da Silva PaternosterMichaël da Silva Paternosterhttps://secure.gravatar.com/avatar/0ece82c9698e1598033a79bbb151c5e1?s=96&d=blank&r=g
Tokyo has thousands of Buddhist temples, but if there’s one that draws the attention of all the tourists, it’s the Sensoji Temple. This religious site in the Asakusa district is the oldest place of worship in the Japanese capital city.
In this article, I’ll describe the Sensoji Temple and all its surrounding tourist attractions. I suggest an itinerary that will allow you to see the main points of interest in the most visited place of Tokyo. I’ll tell you the story of this Buddhist temple. As usual, everything is enhanced with my tips that will help you to make the most of your visit.
I’m Michael, a French who came to live in Tokyo in 2016. I share my travel recommendations and tips to live in Japan on my blog, Nipponrama.
The Sensoji Temple is a necessary stop on any itinerary in Tokyo. It’s one of the most impressive temples of the Japanese capital city. You would be wrong not to go there, even if this place is a victim of mass tourism.
Visit Sensoji Temple and surroundings
In this part, I explain what the best way to see all the tourist attractions that are in the Sensoji Temple and its surroundings is. This itinerary is the one I recommend to all tourists who discover this famous Buddhist temple for the first time.
Kaminarimon: the thunder gate
Just a few meters from Asakusa Subway Station, Kaminarimon Gate is the main entrance to Sensoji Temple. This stately red structure stands on the path of most tourists coming to discover one of the main religious sites of Tokyo.
It’s in front of the sizeable scarlet lantern hanging on the sacred door that visitors take their first photographs. A craftman from Kyoto designed this lantern on which is written “Thunder Gate”. Indeed, there’s only in this city that there’s the necessary savoir-faire to create an item of this dimension. The lantern of the Kaminarimon Gate is 4 meters high and 3.3 meters wide for a total weight of 700 kilograms.
Two giant statues of the Japanese deities of thunder and wind, Raijin and Fujin, protect the entrance of the temple. Two smaller figures are on the other side of the door. They depict Tenryu and Kinryu.
Cross the Kaminarimon door as soon as you finish admiring it and taking your photos. The rest of the route to Sensoji Temple is behind its gigantic lantern.
Nakamise Dori: the shopping street in front of Sensoji
Another critical stage of the visit is between the Buddhist temple and its majestic gate. This place is the Nakamise Dori shopping street. Here, you can admire in the distance the huge religious complex from the other end of this long pedestrian road.
Nakamise Dori, in Asakusa. Photo by Michaël da Silva Paternoster for Nipponrama.
This historic street has existed since the beginning of the Edo period, in the 17th century. Previously it was visited by pilgrims, but today it has become a mandatory stop for tourists visiting Tokyo. Souvenir shops owned by the same families for generations are on both sides of the Nakamise Dori.
Sellers close their curtains from 5 PM, at the same time as the closing of the big hall. The street begins to empty from this moment, until becoming a peaceful place during the night.
Michaël's tips: Where to buy souvenirs from Tokyo?
As in most touristic places, shops near Sensoji Temple charge higher rates than shops in areas less visited by tourists. Besides, some sellers don’t hesitate to offer low-end products made in China or Southeast Asian countries. I advise you to shop in this street only if you don’t have time to go elsewhere.
Hozomon: the second gate of Sensoji
After crossing the 250 meters of the Nakamise Dori, you’ll find yourself in front of a door even bigger than the Kaminarimon. This building is the Hozomon, the “Treasure House Gate”.
Hozomon Gate, at Sensoji, Tokyo. Photo by Michaël da Silva Paternoster for Nipponrama.
It’s named after the fact that its second floor houses many treasures belonging to the Sensoji Temple. These valuables aren’t accessible to visitors. But tourists can console themselves by admiring two 5.45 meters high statues of the divinity Nio, protector of Buddha. This door was initially called “Niomon”, the “Nio’s Gate” in Japanese.
Unlike Kaminarimon, Hozomon doesn’t host one large lantern, but three. The central red lamp weighs 400 kilograms, while the two bronze side lanterns each weigh one ton. The largest of these huge lanterns displays the name of the district of Kobunacho (小舟町), in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward. It commemorates the donation of 5 million yen by the inhabitants of this district during the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Edo era, in 2003.
Once you’ve crossed the Hozomon Gate, you’ll see the Sensoji Temple main hall just in front of you. But I advise you to turn around for a moment to see the two colossal waraji, the Japanese straw sandals, measuring 4.5 meters long and weighing 400 kilograms each.
Michaël's tips: When to visit the Sensoji Temple?
As I said earlier in this article, Sensoji Temple is one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist attractions. For this reason, many people visit this religious complex during the day. But the crowd disappears once night falls. Only the central hall and shops of the Nakamise Dori close at 5 PM. By taking a night stroll in Asakusa at night, you can enjoy this enlightened monument without being jostled. If you are agoraphobic, I also advise you not to go there during the first week of January, because locals are lining up to make their first prayer of the year.
Gojunoto: the Five-Storied Pagoda
Turning on your left you will see Gojunoto, the five-story pagoda. It is the second largest pagoda in Japan. The first being at Toji Temple in Kyoto.
The Sensoji’s Pagoda and the Hozomon Gate. Photo by Michaël da Silva Paternoster for Nipponrama.
The first version of this building was built in the 10th century by the samurai Taira no Kinmasa, at the same time as the Kaminarimon. But the current architecture dates from the seventeenth century, during the reign of Tokugawa Iemitsu. The Gojunoto contains the ashes of Buddha.
Hondo: the main hall
It is in the main hall that would be the statue of Kannon. I use the conditional tense because you couldn’t see it, even when entering this building. A legend tells that the statue was so dazzling that the monks decided to bury it under the Hondo.
Sensoji’s main hall. Photo by Michaël da Silva Paternoster for Nipponrama.
I advise you to raise your head when you have crossed the threshold of the largest building of this religious complex because you will find many paintings on the ceiling of the temple.
Once the visit of the main hall is complete, you can visit the incense smokehouse located in the center of the course. Move the smoke towards the painful parts of your body. Tradition says that it will soothe your suffering.
You can also get an omikuji for 100 yen in one of the buildings on the course. These little divinatory papers have an English translation. But beware, because Sensoji has the reputation of giving more bad predictions to visitors than other temples in the city.
Discover always more:
Who is Kannon?
Kannon, also known as Guanyin in China, is the godhead of mercy in the Mahayana Buddhist cult. A popular religious school in East Asia. This divinity can be portrayed with masculine or feminine traits.
Kannon is one of the most worshiped divinities in Japan. Besides Sensoji, the significant temples of Shitennoji in Osaka and Kiyomizu Dera in Kyoto are dedicated to her.
It gave its name to Canon, the famous Japanese company specializing in optics and imaging.
History of the Sensoji Temple: facts and legends
The legend of the two fishermen of Asakusa
Legend has it that Sensoji was erected in the 7th century, during the Nara era, after two brothers fished a statue of Kannon in the Sumida River. At that time, Tokyo did not exist yet, and Asakusa was only a fishing village. The brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Takenari reportedly brought this statue to Haji no Nakatomo, the village chief. The latter being a fervent believer would have recognized the deity and ordered to build an altar in his honor.
The name “Senso” (浅草) comes from a different reading of the two characters that make up the word “Asakusa”.
A temple older than Tokyo
The first temple of small size would have been completed in 645, a few meters from the place where the miraculous fishing happened. This story makes Sensoji the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo.
During the following centuries, this religious site became majestic, because several prayers were reported to have been right. These miracles prompted wealthier families in the area to give funds to the Tendai sect, which ran the temple until the end of the Second World War.
The popularity of the temple continuously increased, to the point where the most influential samurai families of the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Tairas and Minamotos, went to Sensojito gain the gods backing in the Genpei War. Some of these fighters gave financial support to beautify the religious complex. The most famous of them was Taira no Kinmasa who built the Kaminarimon and Hozomon gates.
Ukiyo-e depicting Sensoji during the 19th century made by Hokkei. This piece of art is in the public domain.
A Tokugawa shoguns’ temple
Tokugawa Ieyasu undertook to build the city of Edo, which later became Tokyo, as this place was under the protection of Sensoji in the northeast and Zojoji, a temple which is near the Tokyo Tower nowadays, in the Southwest. Indeed, according to Chinese geomancy, enemies attack most often from these two directions. The first Tokugawa shogun would naturally have chosen these two temples as guardians of his dynasty by appointing them “Shogun temples”.
In the 17th century, a Shinto shrine was built near the Sensoji Temple to honor the two fishermen, Hamanari and Takanari. This place is named Asakusa Shrine.
Find accommodation in Tokyo
Hotels near Sensoji
Finding a hotel near Sensoji Temple in Asakusa can be strategic. Indeed, several other tourist areas in East Tokyo, like Akihabara and Ueno, are only a few stations away from Asakusa Station.
The religious site is always open to the public. Only the main hall is closed at night. To visit this building, you will have to go to Sensoji between 6.30am and 5pm.
Access to Sensoji Temple is free. You can pay a few yen to buy amulets or omikuji, the divinations written on paper strips.
Time required for the visit
The Sensoji Temple is one of Tokyo’s unmissable sights. Allow about an hour to visit the entire religious site and the shopping streets that surround it. If you only want to see the temple and don’t loiter, only 30 minutes will be needed.
How to get to Sensoji
Map to get to Sensoji
Find the shortest route to the Sensoji Temple with Google Maps.
An exit is just a minute from the Kaminarimon Gate. Asakusa Station is served by many lines operated by several railway companies: Tobu, Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. There you will find the eponymous line of Asakusa which also passes by Shimbashi. This station is also the terminus of the Ginza line which also passes by Shibuya, Omotesando, Ginza and Ueno. The new Skytree line starts in Asakusa and travels to Tokyo Skytree and Kita-Senju.
Third weekend of May
Sanja Matsuri, literally “Three Shrine Festival”, is Tokyo’s largest Shinto festival. It honors the two Hinokuma brothers who caught the Kannon statue in the Sumida River. It takes place mainly in the Asakusa Shrine, but the ceremony also go through the Nakamise Dori.
Michaël da Silva Paternoster
I’m a French guy living in Tokyo, where I work as a digital marketing manager and consultant for several years now. I’ve decided to share my travel recommendations and various tips to help people settle in Japan.