Searching for Seven Lucky Gods in Shitaya

Japan has many New Year’s traditions intended to secure good fortune for the coming year. One of the funniest is also a way out while respecting the social distancing that is advised in the current pandemic conditions: a pilgrimage of the seven lucky gods.

In the Japanese pantheon, there is a group of gods known as the Seven Lucky Gods who are said to enter the harbor on New Years on their treasure boat. Honoring them during the New Year period is seen as a way to ensure good fortune for the coming year. It’s also a great way to take advantage of the good weather that usually occurs on New Years.

In Tokyo, the Seven Lucky Gods Walks often involve centuries-old shrines and temples in the oldest neighborhoods that made up Edo, the old name of Tokyo.

One of these courses is the Shitaya Seven Lucky Gods course in an area of ​​Taito-ku that was once known as Shitaya. Although this area has centuries of history, it is usually not on tourist trails, making it a quiet, hidden gem with a shitamachi to feel.

The course takes approximately 90 minutes, walking between Uguisudani station on the Yamanote line and Minowa station on the Hibiya metro line. It doesn’t matter how the pilgrims travel.

From January 1 to 15 of each year, between 8 am and 5 pm, pilgrims can purchase a small “treasure ship” and figurines of the seven gods or affix red stamps to a shikishi to commemorate their pilgrimage. There are three different shikishi drawings. Two are the traditional white cardboard squares, although one is more colorful and identifies each god in Romanized letters. The simplest is 400 yen; the most colorful is 500 yen. Each stamp costs 100 yen.

Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The third is rectangular and is an artistic representation of the seven gods. Pilgrims can put red stamps on each one. One of the priests related that this third version is popular with people who hope to use the shikishi to decorate their home or office. This one costs 1,000 yen and the stamps, which include calligraphy applied by a priest to each location, are 200 yen each.

Moto-Mishima Shrine (Jurojin)

Jurojin, originally from China, is the god of longevity. It is perhaps appropriate that for this pilgrimage it is associated with the Moto-Mishima shrine, originally founded around 1280 and there since the beginning of the 18th century. The current structure of the sanctuary is a modern reinforced concrete building from the 1970s. It rises above a labyrinth of narrow lanes dominated by love hotels, far from the farming village it once was.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

It is the only shrine among the seven stages of this pilgrimage and one of only two places where pilgrims can purchase the treasure boat and the figurines of the gods.

Iriya Kishibojin (Fukurokuju)

The name Fukurokuju literally means fortune, happiness and longevity. He is often depicted carrying a scroll believed to contain all the wisdom in the world. Fukurokuju is another import from China and is said to have the ability to bring the dead back to life. Perhaps that is why he is in Iriya Kishibojin. Kishibojin is the Buddhist goddess of fertility and safe childbirth, a continuation of the circle of life. But she was originally an Indian demonic goddess, the mother of child-eating demons who repented and reformed upon conversion to Buddhism. Iriya Kishibojin is one of the three Kishibojin temples in Tokyo.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Iriya Kishibojin is especially famous for its Morning Glory Market, which is held in early July every year. During the Edo period, this region was known to cultivate morning glories, making it the subject of a number of well-known woodcuts.

Eishinji (Daikokuten)

Eishinji, the cozy little temple that houses the next god, was founded in the mid-17th century and has a long affiliation with the powerful Matsudaira clan who supplied a number of Tokugawa shoguns.

The lucky god to be honored here is Daikokuten, an Indian import believed to be the god of wealth, farmers, and cuisine. He is usually depicted standing on rice balls, carrying a bag of treasure and a magic mallet. Its statuette, which would have been sculpted by the great Buddhist evangelist Kobo Daishi (774-835), is particularly distinguished by its three faces. The main face is that of Daikokuten, while on the left and right are the faces of the other two lucky gods of Indian origin: Benzaiten and Bishamonten.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Hoshoji (Bishamonten)

Another temple from the mid-17th century is Hoshoji, although it has only been in its current location since the mid-18th century and had to be rebuilt after the great Kanto earthquake in 1923. An interesting information about de Hoshoji is that it is the last resting place of Hachiro Tako (1940-1985), a popular comedian and professional boxer.

Being a boxer, did Tako choose this temple because of his affiliation with Bishamonten, the god of war, perhaps?

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Pilgrims willing to take a bit of a distraction from their pilgrimage may wish to settle across the street behind Hoshoji to visit the Ono Terusaki Shrine. This ancient shrine (founded over a thousand years ago) is famous for its miniature Mount Fuji (open for climbing only on June 30 and July 1 of each year). It is also a popular place for students and performing artists who pray for success. A popular achievement is that of Kiyoshi Atsumi, better known as Tora-san in the films “Otoko wa Tsurai yo”, who got his first big break after praying here.

Benten-in (Asahi Benzaiten)

Benzaiten, also known as Benten, is the third of the gods of Indian origin and the only female of the seven lucky gods. She is the goddess of music and fine arts. She is usually housed on an island, surrounded by water as her familiar is the dragon, which is said to move best in water. At Benten-in, there is only a small pond; no island.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Tobi Fudo (Ebisu)

Tobi Fudo is the popular name for Shoboin, a temple founded in 1530. Tobi means to fly. According to legend, a statue of Fudo that the chief priest of the temple took with him on a trip returned to the temple in response to the prayers of the local people who then began to call the temple Tobi Fudo. After that, the icon became a god who flies to answer prayers. In modern times, Tobi Fudo is a popular god with people about to take airplane trips.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Ebisu is the only native Japanese god of the Lucky Seven. He is said to be the son of Daikokuten and is usually depicted holding a fish and a fishing rod. Although he is primarily considered the god of commerce, fishermen, and good fortune, he is also considered the god of safe travel, which explains his affiliation with Tobi Fudo.

Just one block from Tobi Fudo is a small monument identifying the former residence of novelist Ichiyo Higuchi (1872-1896), whose face currently adorns the Japanese 5,000 yen note. A few streets away is a museum dedicated to the author’s work. While this museum is the most interesting for those familiar with Japanese literature, there is a diorama of this Ichiyo-era Shitaya neighborhood that is worth a visit.

Jueiji (Hotei)

Jueji was founded in 1630 and has a long association with the second Tokugawa shogun, Hidetada and his wife. It is also closely associated with Chion-in, a major temple in Kyoto.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The lucky god here is Hotei, the last of the Chinese-born gods in the pantheon. In China, he is often referred to as the Fat Buddha, due to his round physique. His name literally means “cloth bag” and he is usually depicted holding a cloth bag with an endless amount of gifts, especially for children, which makes him a bit like Santa Claus. For pilgrims, he offers the gift of happiness and contentment.

This class doesn’t take long and is a great way to start the New Year.

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Vicki L Beyer, a regular contributor to Japan Today, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about the Japan experience. Follow his blog on puzzle-japon.com.

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