Big Churches in Little Europe: Asakusa, Tokyo

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Asakusa Temple and Shrine, Tokyo

In Tokyo, and the rest of Japan as far as I know, they take their religion very seriously. More accurately, they appear to take their religion very seriously if one is to judge by the vast number of small shrines that dot the back streets of the city. I, of course, have no idea what really goes on. Every couple of hundred yards you find a small site with a little temple or shrine and some written-on stone or wood upright panels placed outside. The buildings are extremely traditional in design and might be models for drawings by Australian children as perfect Japanese buildings.

There are also big, complex places. Given that Japan has supported a mixture of native Shinto and imported Buddhist spiritual traditions for a long time now, at the major religious sites buildings for both exist side by side. Re-enforcing the notion of a religious site are the stalls and street scapes immediately around these complexes. These are shops to buy and sell food, religious items and provide parade routes with traditional archways, colour and displays. Going to these religious sites is a day out rather than somewhere to sit for 20 minutes in the middle of a busy life.

You can catch a ferry boat from the main ferry terminus in the bay area. As a tourist the cost is about the same as compared to travelling any other way. The trip along the complex canal system (maybe we should call Venice the "Tokyo of the West") is amazing and worth the detour (if, for you, it is a detour).

Japanese culture famously calls for unity of landscape, architecture, body and spirit. Unlike the English who love their churchyards to be either wildlife sanctuaries or formal lawns and gardens, the Japanese love their spiritual places to be complete in themselves, curated and tended. Gravel is raked into a pattern, lakes are shaped to be pleasing and trees are planted exactly with regard to leaf colour, density and pattern. Perhaps they mirror the European monastic tradition where the boundaries of the religious site should include representations of the most important things of the whole world.

The complex at Asakusa is a very interesting place and there are signs in lots of languages explaining it all. It is also very busy, even for central Tokyo. You can take photos of everything bar one. One gentleman engaged in ritualised clapping beside a smaller shrine and, after finishing, got out his camera and repeated his payers for his camera. The single exception to photography is the Buddhist temples where it is prohibited.

Families come to this place for life events. Two daughters and their parents were in fully traditional dress headed down the path towards the lake, walking between massive and very ancient carved, stone lanterns.

It is in places like this that many of the similarities of religious experience are obviously common to the human condition but culturally so distinct. The shapes of the buildings and the tending of the garden is localised and quite Japanese, but no more so than the gardens and architecture of English churches and churchyards is archetypically English. It was how people use the space that was very different, with a focus much more on action than internal attitude. The Buddhist temple with its shoes off policy and no photos was familiar in that it required the visitor to engage with the space and modify their behaviour. The shrines, on the other hand were simply there in the same way the landscape is there. To pray is to join with the landscape, to landscape a place is to invite prayer.

The complex is in downtown Tokyo, so I'll not get too rhapsodic about its beauty, but the area definitely is a great place. There is a fabulous park and large lake nearby on the other side of the canal near the National Sumo Centre and the Edo Museum (of Tokyo). It was in the lake that we both saw three lucky carp leap out of the water before we caught our plane and got an upgrade to business class. I probably should know better, but I will never be rude to a lucky carp again.

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