September 2, 2017

Wolves, Cats, and Darkness

Tokyo has a large collection of shrines and temples but a handful of them are actually hiding some amazing secrets. Here's three of my favorites!

A small shrine hall near Senso-ji and Tokyo's Asakusa area

Any visitor to Tokyo knows that there is absolutely no shortage of random temples and shrines to explore. Indeed, at times it can seem as if there’s a spiritual establishment sandwiched between each of the city’s many high rises. Many of these are underwhelming and not worth your time; nevertheless, there are also a handful that are quite unique. While not necessarily worth a trip in their own right, there are three such spots in Tokyo that I’d like to bring to your attention.

If you have some time to kill in between other commitments, you might want to consider adding one of these to your itinerary. Though located within the confines of Tokyo, all of the following attractions are definitely “off the beaten path.” In fact, even most lifetime city residents are blissfully unaware of these and other spots so consider this a short primer on a few of Tokyo’s hidden gems!

The Hidden Wolves of Shibuya

A statue of a wolf at Shibuya’s Miyamasu Mitake Shrine in Tokyo

Unfortunately for Game of Thrones fans, wolves have sadly been long extinct in Japan. Yet, there is one small shrine in the popular area of Shibuya that pays homage to their ferocious legacy. Known as Miyamasu Mitake Shrine, this little known spot is located only a few minutes walk from Shibuya Station (here’s a map). The shrine was apparently founded sometime between 1673 and 1681 however its origins remain shrouded in mystery.

While fox shrines are ubiquitous across the country, it is very rare for a wolf to take their place. You’ll find several lupine examples at Miyamasu Mitake shrine. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the pair that guard the entrance to the shrine. Normally, this role is played by komainu or “lion-dogs” that were imported from China in antiquity but Miyamasu Mitake Shrine replaces these with with wolves.

Miyamasu Mitake Shrine can be found on the opposite side of the Hachiko meetup spot around five minutes away from the station. Like most shrines, it is open 24 hours a day. Moreover, those visiting during the month of September would be wise to stop by and check out the local festival should it line up with your travel itinerary.

The Origins of the Maneki Neko

Hundreds of maneki neko statues at Tokyo’s Gotoku-ji temple complex

Chances are high that at some point you’ve seen the imagery of a cat holding a coin while beckoning would be shoppers inside. Known as the maneki-neko, these common figurines are said to bring good luck to their owners and their businesses. Since the Edo period (1603–1868), merchants have displayed the maneki-neko at the entrance to their shop as a means of welcoming patrons.

Unfortunately, there are no existing historical records dating the first appearance of the maneki-neko so we’re not sure exactly when they started to become popular. With that said though, there are two sites in Tokyo that each claim to be the origin of the the lovable cat figurine. Of these, the first is Tokyo’s Gotoku-ji and the temple is quite literally covered in maneki-neko statues (as pictured above)!

Legend has it that a feudal lord from Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture was passing through when he was beckoned towards the temple by a cat. Just then a violent storm blew into the vicinity but the lord was sheltered from its wrath by the temple. In gratitude to the cat and the temple, the lord of Hikone eventually acquired the temple outright and had brought it under the family’s protection.

Getting to Gotoku-ji requires a short trek out into Setagaya Ward. Here’s a map if you’re interested in making the trip. It’s not exactly way out in the boonies, but it isn’t the most exciting place in Tokyo either. I would really only recommend a visit to travelers who are staying in the area or who are die-hard maneki-neko fans. If you’re going to stop by, be prepared to walk about 15–20 minutes from the station.

The unassuming Imado Shrine in Tokyo’s Asakusa area

The second site trying to lay claim to the maneki-neko origin is Imado Shrine. It is an incredibly old shrine with origins dating back to the year 1063. You’ll find this ancient location nestled a little ways away from the hustle and bustle of Asakusa’s more touristy areas. Imado Shrine is dedicated to the deity spouses Izanagi and Izanami and is popular with those praying for luck in love and relationships.

What’s this got to do with the maneki-neko? Well, legend has it that an elderly woman who once lived in the area became so poor that she needed to give up her beloved cat. The critter then later appeared to the woman in a dream and instructed her to make a figure in its likeness if she wanted to be happy. Not wanting to disappoint her feline companion, the woman followed its instructions.

Long story short, people were so impressed with her work that they wanted to buy their own. With the sales from the cat figurines she was able to escape the clutches of poverty and make a stable income for herself. As you might imagine, Imado Shrine claims these feline-shaped handicrafts were the origins of the maneki-neko. Supposedly, the original versions were even made in a pottery style called Imado-yaki further linking this shrine with the famous statues.

Descend Into Total Darkness

Buddhist statues at Tokyo’s Tamagawa Daishi temple complex

Lastly, we have Tamagawa Daishi. This temple is located in a relatively remote section of Tokyo (here’s a map) and appears to be just another part of the neighborhood landscape from the outside. Don’t be deceived though; while it doesn’t look like anything particularly special, Tamagawa Daishi hides a dark secret in its deep recesses. Beneath the temple’s tatami flooring lie a series of hidden tunnel that plunge into a black abyss of sensory deprivation.

You’ll need to pay a small entry fee of 100 yen to experience the tunnel but it is certainly worth it. As you descend past the staircase, you’ll quickly find yourself having to rely on other senses as the darkness envelops you. While this can spook some people, the absence of visuals is said to clear the mind and help one enter a meditative state. Many people who exit the temple report feeling mentally and physically refreshed.

The tunnels under Tamagawa Daishi are separated into two joint sections that run over 100 meters. Those who can muster the courage to fumble their way through the darkness will eventually find themselves in one of three candle lit chambers. The most notable of these is pictured above and contains 88 small Buddhist statues that are said to correspond to the famous pilgrimage in Shikoku.

For the Japanese readers out there, know that each of the statues has a number written in kanji on them. These are said to represent your age and local practice holds that one should leave a coin at the corresponding statue. Note that if you’d still like to participate but can’t read kanji, you’d do well to either use Google Translate or have a friend write it out for you in advance!

Before ending, it should be obvious by now that this place isn’t for you if you scare easily or are afraid of cramped spaces. Have an honest talk with yourself as to whether or not you’re going to stay sane in the darkness. Of course, I shouldn’t need to say this, but consider yourself warned.