According to Japanese tradition, at New Year’s, the seven lucky gods sail into harbor on their “treasure boat,” with gifts and good fortune for all. So, of course, it makes sense to pay particular homage to these gods at New Year. One way to do that is via a short “pilgrimage” in their honor—a visit to a fixed course of seven shrines or temples which host the gods. At each location, which should be visited within the first two weeks of the year, the pilgrim collects a stamp or inscription to commemorate the visit.
In Tokyo alone there are at least 24 such pilgrimage courses (and more than 200 across the country). Most are made up of shrines or temples in particular neighborhoods, making the pilgrimage easy to complete within a few hours.
You can find one such course in Yanaka, a Tokyo neighborhood that predates the Edo period and still offers much historical charm. This course, which begins from Tabata Station and ends at Ueno Park, takes about half a day. As it passes through such interesting neighborhoods, with plenty of opportunities for deviations, allow more time if you can.
Fukurokuju, the god of wisdom, is the first god you’ll visit. He makes his home at Togakuji, a temple about a 5-7-minute walk from Tabata Station (from the north exit, turn left, follow the road beneath two underpasses and turn right at the next traffic light to find the temple gate on the right about 20-30 meters down).
Togakuji was founded the year before Columbus sailed for the new world. Besides hosting a statue of Fukurokuju, the temple has many other important sculptures, including the Akashi Nio (red paper deva kings), two statues who stand guard at the entrance to the temple. These particular Nio are famous pain relievers. That is, if some part of your body pains you, paste red paper purchased from the temple onto that part of the body of the Nio and it is believed it will take away your pain.
As this is your first stop, this is where you will purchase a scroll picture of the gods on their treasure boat, which you can have inscribed at each pilgrimage destination. The finished product is a colorful lucky charm, to decorate your home or workplace. Also pick up a map of the walk, as that will make it easier for you to find your way.
At the back of Togakuji is a lovely traditional garden which is only open at New Year’s. Be sure to visit, as it is where you will see Fukurokuju’s statue.
Just next door to Togakuji is Tabata Hachiman Shrine, a small shrine dedicated to Hachiman, the Shinto god of war. Hachiman is the deification of the Emperor Ojin, who lived in the third century. The 12th century shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo, who founded this shrine in 1189, is said to be a descendent of Ojin. This perhaps explains his particular affinity for Hachiman. The uneven spacing of the steps leading to the shrine is said to make it easy for horses to navigate them.
Returning to the main street, turn right, continue to the next traffic light and go left. Left again at the next light and right at the bathhouse will put you on the narrow street to your next two destinations: Shounji and Shusei-in.
Shounji is the home of Ebisu, the god of commerce and fishermen. Just as Ebisu is the youngest of the seven lucky gods, Shounji is also a relatively young temple for this neighborhood, dating only to the 18th century.
Shusei-in, just another minute or so down the road, is home to Hotei, the god of happiness and contentment. The walls surrounding the temple and its graveyard are decorated with murals depicting the god. Hotei, sometimes referred to as the Laughing Buddha, has a round belly and fat ear lobes and is often seen with children. Like Santa Claus, he carries a bag of gifts that is never empty. The statue of Hotei housed here is particularly vivid.
Continue on this road as it meanders almost like a stream until you reach the Yanaka Ginza, which will be going down the hill to your right as you emerge onto it. This market street is popular and often crowded, but a fun place to explore. Just up the hill to your left, on the left-hand side, is Zakuro, a Turkish restaurant with a fun atmosphere and a great 1,000 yen lunch.
To continue your pilgrimage, ascend the steps and continue another 40-50 meters to a small intersection, where you turn right.
If you’re interested in another deviation, pause to check out the temple on your left before you make your right turn. This is Kyooji, to which the Tokugawa Shogitai forces made their final retreat before being defeated by imperial loyalists in the 1868 Battle of Ueno. It is said that you can see bullet holes in the wooden gates to the temple. Certainly there are holes; judge for yourself whether they could be 150-year-old bullet holes.
Once back on the pilgrimage route, you’ll find another tempting deviation just a few dozen meters down the road. The Asakura Museum of Sculpture will be on your left. This museum is the former home and studio of 20th century sculptor, Asakura Fumio (1883-1964). Asakura has been called the “Rodin of Japan” and when you see his work on display in the museum you’ll quickly see why. The building, designed by Asakura, is as much a work of art as his sculptures are.
Your next pilgrimage destination is just a little further down the road on the right: Choanji. Jurojin, the god of longevity, makes his home here.
Walk straight out of Choanji’s gate to head toward Yanaka Cemetery and your next destination, Tennoji (turn left at the main intersection in the cemetery). While Yanaka Cemetery is now a public cemetery, it was originally part of Tennoji, a temple founded by the Buddhist saint, Nichiren, in 1274. The temple courtyard is dominated by a large statue of a seated Buddha, cast in 1690, but your objective is the small shrine on the right which houses Bishamonten, the warrior god of the seven lucky gods.
When you leave Choanji, you need to retrace your steps through the cemetery (but keep going straight at that main intersection) and then make a slight left to continue on the street that runs along the edge of the cemetery. At the intersection where this road narrows significantly, turn right.
If you want another deviation before you turn, on your left is the Former Yoshidaya Liquor Shop, technically an annex of the Shitamachi Museum. Step inside (free entry) for a sense of what a pre-war local shop was like.
After making your right turn, continue to the next light and turn left. At the end of this street is Gokokuin, your next destination, the home of Daikokuten, the god of wealth. The Noh stage in the temple courtyard is particularly noteworthy.
Turn left out of Gokokuin and follow the road around to the left and down an incline. Follow this road, keeping the Ueno Zoo on your left and eventually you will see some temporary barriers on the right where a section of the zoo just north of Shinobazu Pond is being renovated. Turn right where the barriers end to find yourself on the approach to Shinobazu Bentendo, your last pilgrimage stop.
Benten, the goddess of music and fine arts, is usually housed in shrines on small islands. It seems she is happiest when surrounded by water. Although the Bentendo is a post-war reconstruction, in fact, there has been a Benten shrine in this location since the 17th century. The artwork and decorations are quite fine, but another pleasing aspect of this shrine is that many of the fortunes and amulets are available in English.
This completes your pilgrimage, but leaves you just outside Ueno Park where you can find various other amusements, if you still have time and energy. But be assured, even if you’ve worn yourself out on this walk, you have stocked up on good fortune for 2017. Use it well.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a free lance travel writer who also blogs about traveling in Japan. Find her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.