The unbearable heat that enveloped Tokyo just the previous day, was turning into a distant memory. The scorching sun was washed off of the streets with never ending downpour and the city’s landscape was turning grey under the dark overcast.
It was on this rainy day that we decided to visit Asakusa, Tokyo’s popular historic district of religious significance. Like most foreigners, we were heading there to see the famous Senso-ji temple, and to experience what we were hoping was going to be the more traditional side of Japan.
As we got off the underground station, we walked down the incense filled narrow streets, passing shops selling religious artefacts and cheap souvenirs. The area wasn’t too busy and it seemed like only the most devout Buddhists and few determined tourists, were not deterred by the heavy rain, so typical during Japanese summer.
The brave few, hiding from the rain underneath their umbrellas or transparent ponchos sold in every shop, were making their journey to the temple worthwhile by stopping by the various stalls of the Nakamise-dōri, offering traditional goods and delicious local sweets, ranging from the fish-shaped taiyaki (cream or bean paste filled cakes) to melonpan – a delicate, sweet crunchy bun.
With our stomachs happy filled with the delicious sweet treats, we arrived at last at the majestic red building. Recognising the characteristic Senso-Ji temple features, we walked underneath the “Thunder Gate”, an impressive entrance featuring three massive paper lanterns painted with red and black signs suggestive of thunderclouds and lightnings. Having passed the gate, we entered the courtyard surrounded by smaller buildings. Tokyo’s oldest temple was busy with Buddhists praying in front of the various altars or purchasing good fate from the many shops with religious tokens that could be found around the temple complex.
Dating back to 645 AD, Senso-Ji is considered Tokyo’s oldest, and most significant, Buddhist temple dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. Adjacent to the building is also the Asakusa Shrine, a five-storey Shinto pagoda.
According to the legend, a statue of the Goddess, known also as Kannon Bodhisattva, was found one day in the nearby river two brothers who were fishermen. Recognising the importance of the statue, the head of their village turned his house into a small temple for everyone in Asakusa to be able to worship the deity.
Today, Senso-Ji is one of the most visited spiritual places on the planet, attracting tourists and local worshippers alike. It is not only the significant past of this place that draws them, but also what it can tell its visitors about their future.
One of the most popular Japanese ways to read one’s fortune is through drawing omukuji, written fortune strips. At Senso-Ji you can learn what the future has in store for you for just ¥100 (less than a pound). To draw your fortune, you need to shake a special metal tin filled with long wooden sticks while praying for your wish. When one of the sticks comes out through the small hole in the tin, you need to look at the number written on it and find a corresponding sign on the case of wooden drawers standing right next to it. When you open the drawer pointed by your stick, you will find there a small piece of paper with your future written on it. There are three kinds of fortune: good, regular and bad.
If you draw the good fortune, you should take it with you. In case of a bad one, you should tie it in a knot and leave it at the temple. Regardless of your fortune however, you should remain “modest and gentle” and, as the Senso-Ji temple reminds us, “whether in good or bad fortune you should tenaciously do your best. You can carve out your own fortune”.
Convinced that we are masters of our own destiny, we nevertheless decided to improve our fortune the Japanese way – by buying our luck. Like all the others who were leaving their fortunes behind, we donated money to the slots in front of the Buddha statue, bought a picture of deity that was supposed to bring us good luck and, just to be on the safe side, burnt thin white candles while praying for our wish to come true. Good fortune was not cheap to obtain, and Buddhism, like most religions nowadays, turned out to be highly commercialised.
I don’t know whether it was the money spent on the prayers or whether bathing our heads in the fragrant fume from burning incense, but when we drew the fortune one last time, it turned out neutral. Not wanting to tempt fate, I decided neutral was good enough for me and it was time to finish our visit to the temple.
On the way out we passed by the statue of a Buddha in the garden. What was now a tranquil place, turned out to have been destroyed during the World War II. In the courtyard, one can still find a tree that was bombed in an air raid and had regrown in the bark of the old tree. Just like the tree itself, the rebuilt temple has become a symbol of rebirth and peace.
It was not only Senso-Ji, but Japan in general that seemed to be determined to keep raising from its ashes, continuously growing in the never ending karmic cycle. Just like the rest of Tokyo, destroyed in the war Asakusa managed to return to life, once again becoming a popular district filled with restaurants and entertainment.
Perhaps life and growth were all about the choices. Regardless of what the future had in store, we could either let our circumstances define us, or choose to learn our lessons and move on. In my life I knew many people and places that remained trapped in their past, allowing the stories of their misfortunes to dominate their existence. It wasn’t easy to forget, but those few who chose to look forward and stubbornly grew, no matter what cards fate has handed them, were the ones to succeed.
I decided there and then, that I don’t need to know my future. I just need to know that whatever life has in store for me, I will try my best to rise above it.
Despite the persistent rain we kept on walking. After all, you carve your own fortune.