Incense sticks burning at Benzaiten Temple.

Travel in Japan
Tōkyō — Benzaiten Temple

Benzaiten Temple

We're visiting Japan, and have just a day in Tokyo. I was teaching a Linux server course at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, and I'm on my way home. Unfortunately, I only had the one day in Tokyo.

We've been in Ueno Kōen, Ueno Park, visiting the Kiyomizu Kannon-dō temple.

Now we have just left that temple and we're looking down from the top of the staircase leading toward Benzaiten Buddhist temple.

View of the Benzaiten Temple in Tōkyō from the nearby hill.
Stone lanterns and statues along the causeway leading to the Benzaiten Buddhist Temple in Tōkyō, Japan.

The Benzaiten temple is on a former island, now reached by a stone causeway, in the small lake Shinobazu-ike.

The lake is a natural one, although it has been heavily modified a number of times. Once it was even accidentally drained into a subway tunnel when a new line was being constructed and the tunneling accidentally cut into the bottom.

The narrow causeway provides easy access. The causeway is lined with food vendors in the afternoons. It's a nice place for a stroll while watching all the locals doing the same thing.

Stone lanterns and statues line the causeway leading to the Benzaiten Temple.

Later in the day this will be busy with the many visitors. Food vendors will set up stands along here with snacks and light meals.

Today the lake is a set of three shallow ponds with an overall circumference of about 2 kilometers.

The ponds are shallow, all with average depths of just under a meter. They're the remains of large marsheland from centuries ago.

The surface of Hasu no Ike or Lotus Pond is completely covered with lotus plants in the summer.

You can rent small paddle boats on Bōto no Ike or Boat Pond.

As for U no Ike or Cormorant Pond, tyat species of birds inhabits that section at certain times of the year.

Exterior of the Benzaiten Buddhist Temple in Tōkyō, Japan.

This is the exterior of the Benzaiten temple. Benzaiten is the Buddhist goddess of the arts, knowledge, and wisdom. People today make offerings in hope of success in examinations and general good fortune. It was built by the daimyo or feudal lord Mizunoya Katsutaka in the early 1600s. The temple was on what was then an island, and access was by boat. By the late 1600s a stone causeway had been constructed.

Large iron incense burner at Benzaiten Buddhist Temple in Tōkyō.

A chōzuya is a water trough with ladles to ritually purify your hands and mouth before entering the temple. The metal ladles of the chōzuya rest on a bamboo shaft laid across the stone water trough.

An incense burner is at the base of the steps leading into the temple.

Large iron incense burner at Benzaiten Buddhist Temple in Tōkyō.  Burned incense sticks are visible in the sand.
Chōzuya, or ritual water trough at Benzaiten Buddhist Temple in Tōkyō.  Metal ladles rest on a bamboo shaft.  The ladles are used for ritual washing before entering the temple.
Red-bibbed statue of the Buddhist deity Jizō at Benzaiten Buddhist Temple.  The deity is depicted as a monk with a staff in one hand and a jewel in the other.  Someone has placed a red bib on the figure.

A visiting worshipper has dressed a statue of the Buddhist diety Jizō with a red bib. Jizō is often depicted as a monk with a staff in one hand and a jewel in the other. A red bib on a Jizō figure is an attempt to cover the soul of a dead child.

My handy Lonely Planet guidebook explained that the female contraceptive pill had not been legalized in Japan until the late 1990s. Up until then it was claimed that because the Japanese people were genetically unique, unlike any other people on Earth, the contraceptive pill used by foreigners would have entirely different and unwanted effects on Japanese women.

But then with the enormous popularity of Viagra in Japan, indicating that perhaps the Japanese are not quite as unique as they would like to think, pressure was brought to legalize the contraceptive pill.

Legalization was still a difficult struggle, due to the lobbying of the medical industry which was making a great deal of money off a very high rate of abortion. And hence many of the red bibs.

A Shintō shrine adjacent to the Benzaiten Buddhist Temple.

This Shintō shrine is adjacent to the Buddhist temple.

Shintō religious facilities are shrines, while Buddhism uses temples.

Shintō and Buddhism have generally co-existed peacefully within Japan. A significant exception was during the Meiji period (1868-1912 AD) when nationalist fervor led to "State Shintō" as a state religion and Buddhism was placed under severe restrictions.

The Allied occupation of Japan after World War II led to the abolition of the State Shintō which had promoted the divinity of the Emperor and the racial uniqueness and superiority of Japan.

Shintō is a form of animistic polytheism and involves the worship of kami or spirits. Some kami are local spritual beings of a particular place, others represent natural objects and processes such as Amaterasu, the Sun goddess, or Mount Fuji.

Visitors to a Shintō shrine will typically pull a heavy cord to ring a bell or gong, summoning the local diety. They will pray, then clap their hands twice and back away from the shrine. The clapping is said to have the function of getting the attention of the ill-defined and apparently inattentive diety. Shintō today seems more of a national theme activity than an actual religion; something to hang nationalism on, not something to practice except in a rather low-key way.

Buddhism, on the other hand, is not so much a religion as a philosophy that can be very compatible with other religious belief.