An Ode to Kaminarimon: The incredible history of Sensoji’s famous Thunder Gate
The lantern of the Kaminarimon Thunder Gate of Sensoji was reinstalled today after having been removed for the first time in seven years for repair work! This is the perfect time to learn more about the historic ‘Thunder gate’ and its iconic lantern in Maction Planet’s definitive history of the Kaminarimon.
The Kaminarimon (雷門, ‘Thunder Gate’) is the outer of two large entrance gates that ultimately lead to Sensoji (浅草寺, Sensōji, also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple), the oldest and most famous Buddhist temple in Tokyo founded in 645 AD.
The Kaminarimon was first built in 942 AD by Taira no Kinmasa, a military commander and member of the Taira clan, as a donation to the province of Musashi. The clan was one of the four most prominent families of court aristocracy in the Heian period (794 -1185 AD), along with the Minamoto, Tachibana, and Fujiwara clans. Taira no Kinmasa also built the Hozomon, the inner gate that leads to Sensoji, in the same year.
The Kaminarimon gate was originally constructed near Komagata, about four blocks south of where it stands now. It was reconstructed in its current location in 1635. Four years after its relocation, the Kaminarimon burned down, and in 1649, Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa Shogun, had the gate rebuilt along with several other major structures in the temple complex. The gate burned to the ground again in 1757 and was rebuilt once more. In 1865 the gate was once again gutted by fire but this time was not rebuilt.
“A 12-story tower appears in front of our eyes. Coming to Kaminarimon, we are already at Asakusa Kannon. The street is crowded with worshippers walking shoulder to shoulder.” This is a line from the popular Streetcar School Song in the Meiji era that is about famous places in Tokyo. Back in those days, the Kaminarimon area was a busy commercial centre – a bustling market, but the namesake gate did not exist!
More than 90 years passed without a Kaminarimon. In late 1958 voices advocating the gate’s reconstruction grew louder. Answering the call, Kyojun Shimizudani, Chief Priest of Sensoji Temple approached Konosuke Matsushita (1894 – 1989), the founder of Matsushita Electric Industrial Company (now Panasonic) and asked him to help rebuild the Kaminarimon. After some contemplation, Matsushita eventually agreed. “I will be happy to make a donation. But, keep my name undisclosed as much as possible.” In May 1959, the reconstruction project began, supported by monetary donations from Matsushita, and the new gate was unveiled one year later on 3 May 1960. Luckily, this iteration is still standing!
In recent years, Sensoji has worked hard to improve access in the temple grounds to people with disabilities. For example, it levelled an approximately 10-centimetre gap under the massive red lantern at the Kaminarimon gate, the main gateway to the temple. The temple carried out the work during large-scale renovations in 2014 so wheelchair users and people with strollers can move around freely.
The current Kaminarimon is 11.7 metres high, 11.4 metres wide, and covers an area of 69.3 square metres. The characters 金龍山 (Kinryū-zan) on the tablet above the lantern, read from right to left, refer to the temple’s full name: Kinryū-zan Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺).
Four statues are housed in the Kaminarimon, two in the front alcoves and two in the back. The statues of the Shinto gods Fūjin and Raijin are displayed on the front of the gate. Fūjin, the god of wind, is located on the east side of the gate, while Raijin, the god of thunder, is located on the west side. It is believed that the Fujin and Raijin statues were first placed in the gate during the 1635 reconstruction. The original sculptures were severely damaged in the fire of 1865 with only the heads being saved. The statues were restored for the gate’s 1960 reconstruction. It is these two statues that give the gate it’s official name, Fūraijinmon (風雷神門), Gate of the Wind and Thunder Gods, although it is most commonly called Kaminarimon (雷門) – the Thunder Gate.
Two additional statues stand on the reverse of the gate: the Buddhist god Tenryū (Heavenly Dragon) on the east side, and the goddess Kinryū (Golden Dragon) on the west side. Despite being humanoid each statue sports a dragon tail. Placed in a symmetrical way to Fujin and Raijin, they are also protectors of the Temple and the Buddhist religion. Dragon gods protect people from the raging seas and allow crops to grow into a bountiful harvest. These statues were donated in 1978 to commemorate the 1350th anniversary of the first appearance of the bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokiteśvara) at Asakusa, which led to the founding of Sensoji. They were carved by then-106-year-old master sculptor and Order of Culture recipient Hirakushi Denchū (1872-1979).
A giant red lantern (chōchin) usually hangs under the centre of the gate, also donated by Matsushita, founder of Panasonic. It is 3.9 metres tall, 3.3 metres wide and weighs approximately 700 kilograms. The front of the lantern displays the gate’s name, Kaminarimon (雷門). Painted on the back is the gate’s official name, Fūraijinmon (風雷神門).
On Tuesday 10 March 2020, workers unhooked the lantern from the gate for a makeover!
Since 1960, the lantern is remade every 10 years by specialist lantern makers in Kyoto who replace its paper and frame. Panasonic continues to support by funding this 10-year renewal. The lantern removed on 10 March 2020 was the fifth lantern, installed on 18 November 2013. It was built by Takahashi Chōchin, who have been specialist lantern makers since 1703.
Takahashi Chōchin work hard to give the lantern a traditional Edo Era-like appearance. The lantern is a chochin-type which means it has a spiral bamboo frame covered in hundreds of sheets of paper. This spiral frame allows the lantern to be collapsed during the Sanja Matsuri festival, one of the greatest summer festivals held in Asakusa when portable shrines (mikoshi) need to pass through the gate. It is also raised and locked in place when there is a strong storm or typhoon approaching which protects the lantern but also, rather appropriately, respects the power of Fujin and Raijin. Specialists take about three months to craft the framework, created from bamboo harvested in the Tamba region of Kyoto, and create the final shape by wrapping 300 sheets of Japanese paper around the frame. Mulberry products from Fukui prefecture are used for bonding the materials together, all of which are prepared a year in advance, including the bamboo and Japanese paper. The new lantern will have the same metallic base on the bottom as the previous one with a nameplate inscribed with “Matsushita Denki”, an abbreviated form of Panasonic’s old Japanese name, Matsushita Denki Sangyo Kabushiki Gaisha.
When you stand under the metal base and look directly upward, you will notice a beautiful, detailed dragon-shaped engraving known as the ‘Dragon Sculpture’. Going back to the origins of Sensoji Temple, legend has it that when the Hinokuma brothers caught the statue of the Kannon Bodhisattva in their fishing net in the nearby Sumida river, a dragon with shining gold scales appeared from the water. The dragon carving in the lantern enshrines the creature as another god watching over Sensoji. In Japan, dragons who reside in oceans are said to have power over the clouds and the rain. In the past, Asakusa was a town filled with tightly-packed wooden buildings – a fire risk. This water-dwelling dragon was revered as a god that could save Asakusa from conflagration.
Once Takahashi Chōchin have completed their work, the finished lantern is shipped by truck from Kyoto. It is too big to fit through expressway toll gates, so the driver has to take regular roads all the way to Tokyo!
The latest repair work on the lantern is being done earlier than usual due to damage from last year’s adverse weather and, in preparation for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. The lantern was reinstalled early morning on 17 April 2020.
Featured and Header photos of the lanternless Kaminarimon are copyright Satoshi Toyoshima, used with permission. All other photos are copyright Maction Planet.