Human ear can hear sound frequencies between approximately 20 and 20,000 hertz. You identify certain sounds for different things and make sense of the world through sounds, to sense and to communicate. Some sounds are unfamiliar to your ears, and you’ll sense anticipation for what you’ll face. Some sounds are unwanted, they disturb you like that time you were taking a nap and a loud bang on your front door woke you up abruptly, or the ones that made it difficult for you to hear your friend speaking to you across a loud bar, these sounds are called noise.
But instead I found myself in that very shrine hearing all the noises I never expected to hear.
I pictured an air of serenity in my head when I thought of a Buddhist shrine; the sound of the monk’s bare feet against the wooden flooring of the shrine and faint chimes of metal prayer bells, but instead I found myself in that very shrine hearing all the noises I never expected to hear.
The Obon week in mid August is a major holiday season in Japan where schools and offices are closed. Local and foreign tourists alike swarmed tourist attractions throughout Japan under the summer heat. Apparently, Asakusa Kannon Temple or Sensoji, being the oldest temple in Tokyo was one of the most visited places in that city. I could not walk five steps without having to stop to avoid photobombing someone.
It was barely midday but I could feel the sun’s shine piercing through my scalp. Japanese summers are hot and humid, and with the horde of people around me I could only think of all the carbon dioxide released into the air and the fight for fresh air under the burning heat. Instead of an air of serenity, I was drowned in the heat and all the noise: this was definitely not the ideal visit to a Buddhist shrine I pictured in my head.
There were two large gates leading to Sensoji’s main hall. Being made of wood and painted a striking red colour, the gates are a popular photo spot amongst tourists and are almost like a symbol of Tokyo itself. Kaminarimon or the thunder gate is the outer of the two gates named after the gods of wind and thunder whose statues sat on the right and left of the gate. In the middle of the Kaminarimon, hung a giant red paper lantern almost as tall as the gate itself. The lantern hung so low that people could touch its base while passing through the gate. The inner gate itself was nearly identical, but separated 250 metres away from each other by the festive Nakamise-dōri.
5 Senses – Taste
Nakamise-dōri is a street leading to the temple’s main hall lined with shops stretching from the outer to the inner gate. It is said to have come about in the early eighteenth century, when people around Sensoji were granted permission to set up shops on the approach to the temple. The shops were selling traditional souvenirs from fans and Japanese rice crackers to something more contemporary like anime mobile phone straps. Over the summer there would also be shops selling summery snacks like green tea ice cream crammed between the flashy souvenir shops. All these shops were part of a living tradition of selling to pilgrims who walked to Sensoji in the past.
The shops are definitely worth a visit even if you don’t like shopping as you’ll find yourself amused just by standing in the middle of a tiny souvenir shop flooded with colours, being amazed at the curious finds or simply enjoying a bit of people-watching. I stood under the shades in front of a closed shop shielded from the sun, cooling down and trying to absorb my surrounding while filtering the noise. Hundreds of people were chattering loudly, moving slowly like herds of cattle occasionally bumping into one another. I was one of them.
5 Senses – Touch
Beyond the noise of Nakamise-dōri a five storey pagoda stood prominently behind the inner gate, but the main hall; a large red wooden building with a slanted roof, was the centrepiece in that courtyard. There was a walkway leading to the main hall with tiny buildings to its sides, small wooden drawers covered its walls. The air was filled by loud clinking noise coming from those buildings and it was impossible to ignore the noise despite the main hall’s charms.
As I approached one of the buildings I learnt that people were vigorously shaking tall metal canisters with a tiny opening on its top. Thin wooden sticks slid out of it. Tiny kanji numbers on each stick correspond to one of the many wooden drawers holding paper with one’s luck or misfortune written on it. Behind every clink of the metal tube were hopes for luck and fortune.
I continued along to the main hall after washing my hands on a fountain nearby. On its entrance under another was a large wooden offering box with metal grates. People stopped there to bow and clap their hands before throwing coins in the box. The sound of coins against the metal grates echo in the temple’s main hall. I stood nearby stoked at the continuous flux of people bowing and clapping before the offering box and enchanted by the clattering sound of the coins.
A lady once said to me that I have to throw in coins to the offering box, that way I’d make some noise and get the gods’ attention to listen to my prayers. I witnessed a wordless exchange between the devotees and the gods above the noise. I glanced at the door facing the garden to the east of the main hall where a sandstone statue of Buddha sat amongst the trees and I could hear the sound of cicadas chirping in the garden.
Even with the intense heat and humidity of rainy season in June and July, it is not until the cicadas start chirping that the Japanese consider summer to have truly arrived. Behind me, the chattering in Nakamise-dōri, the rattling sound of the fortunetelling canisters and the clatter of the devotees’ coins faded to the sound of summer before me.
The offering box in the Main Hall.
A girl in yukata on the temple grounds.