Sensoji Temple in Asakusa is the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo and also one of the most-visited ones. You haven’t really been to Tokyo if you haven’t visited the temple. Here’s the legendary story behind it and all the different parts to explore during your visit.
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About Sensoji Temple
Senso Ji is the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. It dates back all the way to 628 AD. Besides being the oldest temple, Sensoji is also one of the most visited and most colorful temples in Tokyo. Roughly 30 million people flock to the temple every year. Sadly, Sensoji Temple was destroyed in WWII along with many other landmarks, including Meiji Shrine. As a result, you won’t be able to see Sensoji in its originality, but a reconstruction of it.
There is an interesting story behind the construction of Sensoji. Legend has it that two brothers stumbled upon a golden statue whilst fishing it was is now the Sumida River. Despite multiple attempts to return the statue to the river, the statue would always come back to them. When it turned out that what they caught in their net was a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, a temple was built to house the miraculous statue. It became a local legend and soon enough attracted visitors from all over Japan. Now, is it is a world-famous landmark.
Some may refer to Sensoji temple as Asakusa Temple!
Here’s a fun fact: Sensoji’s name does not arrive from Kannon. The name rather pays tribute to its location, Asakusa. Senso is another reading for “Asakusa” and Ji means “temple”. Together Senso-Ji makes Asakusa Temple. For many, Asakusa Temple is easier to remember as they already know the name of the district.
What to See at Sensoji Temple
Sensoji Temple, or Asakusa Kannon Temple, consists of several buildings you can explore. When visiting the famous Buddhist Temple, you will first pass through the Kaminarimon Gate before strolling down Nakamise Shopping Street which connects the outer gate with the inner gate. The inner gate, called Hozomon Gate, ultimately leads you to the temple’s main complex, housing the main hall, a five-storied pagoda, and Asakusa Shrine.
Here’s a list of the different sights, starting from the outside and working our way towards the main complex:
Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate)
Kaminarimon is the gateway to Sensoji Temple. Its centerpiece is a giant, red lantern inscribed with the word “Thunder Gate”. The lantern weighs just about 1,410 lbs. Despite its weight, I recommend you to walk below it and look ob to the lantern’s base. What you see there are incredible dragon carvings at the base. On each side of the lantern, you will find a statue. On the left, you can see the God of Thunder, on the right the Wind of God. Both were put there to guard the temple from storms.
Nakamise-Dori Shopping Street (Orange Street)
Dubbed as Japanese oldest shopping street, Nakamise-Dori connects Sensoji Temple’s outer gate and with the inner gate. The quintessential shopping street stretches over 800 feet and lets you buy souvenirs, enjoy top-notch street food, and stock up on Japanese snacks. In total, there are about 90 different stalls.
Hozomon Gate (Treasure House Gate)
After shopping at Nakamise, you will arrive at Hozomon Gate, guarding the Asakusa Temple and its treasures against enemies. It houses three lanterns: a red one surrounded by two copper lanterns. To protect Buddhist values, each side of the lanterns is with a statue of a fierce-looking guardian spirit.
This pagoda reaches a height of about 173 feet, equaling an 18-story building. The height makes this pagoda the second-tallest pagoda in all of Japan. Each level of the five-story pagoda represents one of the five elements that derive from Buddhist beliefs: land, water, fire, wind, and sky. It is said that the topmost tower holds a relic of Buddha’s ashes from Sri Lanka. Because of this immense value, the interior is off-limits to most people.
Hondo (Main Hall)
Inside the main hall, Hondo or also called Kannon-do, you can find the enshrined Kannon statue. The original statue Sumida River, however, is not on display but kept hidden from the public. Because the original statue is considered holy, you will only get to see a substitute.
Asakusa Jinja Shrine
The placement of this Shinto Shrine next to the famous Sensoji is no coincidence. Asakusa Jinja honors the three founders of Sensoji Temple: the two brothers that discovered the Kannon statue as well as the landowner. While it may seem unusual to build a Shinto Shrine so close to a Buddhist Temple, history shows that the two religions were closely connected.
To the left of the main hall stands Yogodo Hall. The hall contains 12 protective Buddha statues, one for each year of the zodiac cycle.
Events at Sensoji Temple
Throughout the year, numerous events take place at Sensoji Temple. A popular event that quickly became a tradition is the Golden Dragon Dance or “Kinryu no mai”. It commemorates the rebuilding of the temple after its destruction during World War II. If you want to experience the commemoration first hand, you have two chances each year. The bi-annual event takes place on March 18th and October 18th, regardless of the day of the week.
However, the largest event held at Asakusa is called Sanja Matsuri and takes place every year in May. The Shinto festival honors Hinokuma Hamanari, Hinokuma Takenari, and Jahino Nakatomo – the three men who founded Sensoji Temple. From Friday to Sunday, on the third weekend in May, you can watch parades, traditional music, and dancing at Asakusa Temple. About 2 million people attend the festivities every year.
How to get to Sensoji Temple
Sensoji Temple is located in the historic Asakusa district, hence Asakusa Temple. You can find it just outside Asakusa Station. Take exit 1 after arriving with the Ginza Lane and walk straight. After a minute, you will be able to see Kaminarimon Gate to your right. It is the outer gate and therefore the entrance to Asakusa Temple.
Sensoji Temple Hours
The temple grounds are open 24/7, however, if you wish to access the main hall you will need to be here between 6 am and 5 pm. If you can, you should try to avoid weekends and public holidays. Otherwise, you will encounter extreme crowds of visitors and locals alike. Seeing Sensoji Temple at night is a magical experience. The temple is gorgeously illuminated and looks even more peaceful.
Can I take pictures at Sensoji Temple?
Watch for signs that prohibit photography. Generally speaking, you may take pictures outside the buildings, but not inside.
Why is Sensoji Temple famous?
Sensoji Temple is the oldest and most-visited temple in Tokyo. It dates back all the way to 628 AD.
Are there restrooms at Asakusa Temple?
Yes, you will find two public restrooms on the temple grounds. They are easy to spot. Just keep an eye out for signs. You won’t have to look for too long.
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When I first traveled to Japan, I immediately fell in love with the culture, landscapes, and endless fun experiences. Tokyo as the capital fascinated me the most. The city is vibrant and full of contrasts. I'm here to inform you about Tokyo’s major attractions and best-kept secrets.