46000 in 1: Shiman-rokusennichi at Sensoji

July 10 is one of the most important days at Sensoji, the world’s most visited religious site. Mac, Founder of Maction Planet, discusses the history of the connected events happening around it, as enjoyed by our guests on their “Backstreets of Shitamachi” Tokyo Private Tour!

Yesterday I spent an amazing day with Clare and Emma, our wonderful guests from Australia. They had been to Japan before, but as it was their second trip, they really wanted to delve deeper into the traditions and culture of Tokyo, enjoy festivals and have truly local experiences. It was the first of several days we are spending together over the next week. 

Shitamachi, literally the “under city” or “downtown”, is a term used to describe where the lower castes of the shogunate era, such as artisans and merchants, lived. It coincides with the eastern part of Tokyo, which happens to be geographically lower that the western “Yamanote” zone – the home of the samurai and other upper castes.  Although the boundaries have blurred, the term is still used to describe certain parts of the city and a certain sensibility, both of which contribute to the traditional atmosphere of north-eastern Tokyo.

We began our day at Sensoji, the oldest temple in Tokyo and the most visited religious site in the world. The legend goes that the Hinokuma brothers found a statue of the Kannon in the Sumida River in 628 AD. It was enshrined by the chief of their village in his own house, which he remodelled for this purpose. The first temple ‘proper’ was built in 645 AD. Our guests overheard another guide telling her group that Sensoji was built in 634, but they knew better. I can understand the mistake – 634m is the height of the nearby Tokyo Skytree.

We really enjoy bringing guests to the area. The quiet backstreets around the temple (if you know where to turn to avoid the crowds) provide the type of amazing contrasts which truly make Tokyo the World’s Greatest Metropolis. We adore it so much, we even put our love on a T-shirt.

July 10 is a very special day at Sensoji, where several interconnected traditions coincide.

The most important of these is that July 10 is the Shiman-rokusennichi – the Day of 46,000 Blessings. Each month, there are various days dedicated to the various Buddhist deities, such as the  Bodhisattva Kannon and the Jizo, not just at Sensoji but at other temples too. Some of these days have more ‘value’ in terms of praying or performing good deeds. July 10 is a day to beat (almost) all other days. Worshipping on this day is equivalent to praying for 46,000 days.

Where does this 46,000 number come from? There are a few differing theories. One is that, there being 24 hours in a day, 24 = 4 x 6, and combining the 4 and 6 give us 46. Another claims that there were 46,000 men in the army of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate, when he camped at Sensoji Temple on July 10 after his defeat at the battle of Ishibashiyama. This was fought on September 14, 1180 in Odawara, which means he must have been there 10 months later. Talking to the locals, the most likely theory in my view, especially given that this 46,000 number is universal across several key days at various shrines in Japan, is that there are believed to be 46,000 grains of rice in one sho (one sho is 1.804 litres), and rice was and still is of course a huge part of the staple diet of Japan.  

Regardless of its origins, as you can imagine, it is a popular day to head to the temple! Some visitors got more attention that others, even though they didn’t want it! 

Also held on 9 and 10 July at Sensoji is the Hozuki-ichi, a market which dates back some 200 years. Hozuki is a plant known in English by various names.  On signs advertising the festival you will most commonly see ‘Ground Cherry’ or ‘Chinese Lantern’.  The plant itself is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine by pregnant women to alleviate discomfort.

The price of the Hozuki depends on the bounty from that year’s harvest which is grown at Shikabone-cho in Edogawa especially for the Shiman-rokusennichi. This year, they were ¥2,500 per plant.

Also on sale are wind-chimes, furin, often sold with the plants. Many of these are hand-painted. The sound of the chime, made from blown-glass, is believed to provide a cooling feeling, vital as the city heats up in July and August.

Finally, there are triangular charms on sticks of bamboo, Kaminari-yose, only offered on 9 and 10 July,  which are believed to ward off lightning. These charms were originally created in the early Meiji Era as a substitute for red corn which was believed to have the same property of protection. Red corn used to be sold on 9 and 10 July around Asakusa. However, a bad corn harvest one year led to Sensoji creating the aforementioned charms at the request of visitors. They became increasingly popular over time, and by the mid-1930s the corn sellers were a sight of the past. The rise in the popularity of Hozuki is another reason for the decline in red corn sales.

As we wandered around, we enjoyed the special atmosphere of the temple during this period. Locals (and tourists) were dressed in Kimono and Yukata. We chatted to several locals – residents of the area, hozuki sellers and vendors on Nakamise-dori – about the special day, what it meant to them and how the area has changed over time.  

Lunchtime came around… and it was truly special. Edo Monja. Monjayaki is the Kanto “equivalent” of the more well-known Okonomiyaki. It is an authentic Tokyo dish, having originated (well, allegedly, but we’ll claim it!) in Tsukishima. We were treated to an Edo-style Monja and a modern style Monja. The contrast was interesting, but they were both absolutely delicious! Emma and Clare were the only tourists in the restaurant, run by an incredible lady, 72 years young, who is the fourth generation to own this incredible establishment. Talking to the owner, we discovered that a number of famous visitors have enjoyed the amazing food here. Some of the more recent ones have left their mark by signing a ‘shikishi’ sign board which is hanging on the walls. Perhaps the most historically important of the guests which she described was Natsume Soseki. Soseki (1867-1916) is considered in many quarters to be Japan’s greatest novelist. Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most famous living novelist, has said that Soseki is his favourite writer. Soseki is so highly esteemed that his image graced the ¥1000 banknote from 1984 to 2004. Illustrious company indeed!

After lunch we continued on to different districts in shitamachi – savouring traditional Tokyo and enjoying its contrasts with the new. In fact, our guests were enjoying themselves so much, our originally planned “half-day” tour quickly turned into a full one!

The summer gets hot in Japan, but with careful planning of your itinerary, you can still enjoy a full day in The World’s Greatest Metropolis without getting natsubate (best translated as ‘summer fatigue’). As one offset to the heat, the summer is when the majority of festivals and fireworks displays occur around the city.

At Maction Planet, we love being able to factor in special experiences into our itineraries. This is one of the key benefits of full-customisation and the bespoke service we offer. Often there is no English-language information about these truly local events. For examples of what we mean, look here (400-year old festival), here (an amazing night out), and here (fantastic concerts). With our help, you can be the only tourists at events like these!

Thank you as always to our guests from Maction Planet.

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