Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Seven Lucky Gods

We live in a fabulous housing community that regularly offers a lot of local tours and classes, so I signed myself (and the girls) up for the “Seven Lucky Gods Tour” through Kamakura. The seven lucky gods are visited at the beginning of every year in hopes of starting off the year on the right foot. You of course can visit on your own, but as part of our tour, we each bought a stamp board at the first shrine we went to. The stamp board is carried around to each of the seven shrines and is stamped and written on by a monk at the shrine. I have no idea what the board says, of course, but it looks fabulous and I can’t wait to frame it and put it on display.  The boards are available for purchase from January 7-31st and cost 500Y. At every shrine you will also need to pay 100-200Y for admission (a couple were free, however) and 300Y for your board stamp.

The first shrine we visited was that of Benten, the only female of the seven lucky gods. She is a female deity from India and is usually represented playing her four-stringed lute, seated on a sea serpent or dragon. She bestows eloquence and wisdom, as the goddess of eloquence and the arts. You can visit Benten at a small shrine located near the base of Hachiman (in the middle of Genji pond) or at her official shrine located on Enoshima Island.

The second shrine was that of Bishamon, the god of war. He is fierce looking with glaring eyes and is clad in armor, holding a long spear in his left hand and a small pagoda in his right hand. He overpowers evildoers by the power of his spear and pagoda. You can visit Bishamon at Hokaiji Temple.

This was the only place we visited where we had to remove our shoes and go inside to get our boards stamped. I slipped off my shoes and stepped onto the soft tatami mats that covered the floor of the old, wooden temple. The room was filled with the smell of incense and along the back wall were many statues, offerings, and incense burners and there was a beautiful, large, golden chandelier hanging in the middle of the room. I waited in line and when my turn came, I knelt on the floor in front of an elderly female monk with a small table over her lap. I handed my board to her and she carefully set it on the table. She opened a large red ink pad and stamped my board with a large stamp, and then a smaller one. Then, she picked up a small paintbrush, dipped it into a jar of ink, and proceeded to write Japanese characters from top to bottom alongside the stamps. As I watched this monk writing on my board, I felt goosebumps rising up on my arms. The scene in front of me, the smell of incense and the feeling of the tatami mats underfoot were an amazing realization of what I was experiencing in that moment.  As a Religious Studies minor, this was a dream come true. To be immersed in such a part of a religious culture was amazing for me. This was something that had been done for hundreds of years. It was simply wonderful to be a part of it.

The third shrine was that of Jurojin, the god of longevity. He is an old man with a long head and a white beard. He carries a holy staff, on the top of which is attached a holy scroll. He has a folding fan and is accompanied by a stag or a crane, symbolic of longevity. You can visit Jurojin at Myoryuji Temple.

The snow kept my girls quite entertained throughout the day.
My girls LOVED the Japanese ladies that gave us the tour.

The fourth shrine was that of Ebisu, the god of fishermen. He holds a big red snapper under his left arm and carries a fishing rod on his right shoulder. A portly, smiling figure with pointed hat and long robe reminiscent of a court noble, he is popularly known as the god of prosperous commerce among merchants. You can visit Ebisu at Myogonzan Hongakuji Temple.

The fifth shrine was that of Daikoku, the god of wealth. He is a smiling old man wearing a hood and usually seated on two bales of rice, over his left shoulder is a large bag full of treasures and in his right hand is a small mallet symbolizing good luck. He is accompanied by a rat which comes to gnaw at one of his bales of rice. In Japan, he is popularly known as Okuninushi-no-mikoto. You can visit Daikoku at Hase-Dera Temple.

The sixth shrine was that of Fukurokuju, the god of wealth and longevity. He has a short body with short legs, a very long head and a beard. He holds a stick with a sutra scroll tied to it and is attended by a crane or a tortoise, both symbols of longevity. You can visit Fukurokuju at Goryo Jinja Shrine.

Did I mention she likes to wash her hands?

The seventh shrine was that of Hotei, the god of contentment and happiness. He is very fat with a bare belly and a happy, smiling face. He carries a bag on his back and fan in his hand. You can visit Hotei at Jochiji Temple.

This was one of my favorite temples, hidden back in the woods and especially gorgeous with some snow on the ground. Both of my kids liked this god and my youngest kept referring to his “Buddha belly.” This temple also had a small heated room where you could get your board stamped, which was especially nice considering it was 44 degrees outside.

I love this picture!

All in all, we walked about 6 miles, or 15,000 steps on this tour. This was the first tour that I’d been on without my husband, in which I did not bring the stroller along for my 3-year-old. I seriously thought I would maybe get through 1 or 2 temples before having to go home and I absolutely cannot believe that both of my kids walked the entire day! To all seven shrines!! And with only 1 small meltdown on our way to the last shrine. I do not know how I got so lucky with my kids, but it was a wonderful day. I really enjoyed the tour, but it was also fabulous to see my children soaking everything in, getting acquainted with Japanese culture, and making friends with Japanese locals.

And before I go, I have to say that one of the best parts of the day was near the end of the tour when we were waiting for a train. Japanese children were getting out of school and a couple of 6/7-year-old Japanese girls were curious about Thing1 and Thing2. When my girls started introducing themselves and trying to speak in Japanese, our sweet Japanese tour guides jumped in as translators. Before long, the two Japanese girls had multiplied into 7 or 8 and they took Thing2’s hand as we got on the train. They sat beside both of my girls and wanted their pictures taken with them. It was so cute! All the Americans in our group, and all the Japanese around us on the train were laughing and smiling at the new little friends. If you’re wondering why they were so interested in my kids, it’s quite commonplace for the Japanese to want pictures with foreign kids, or to try and touch their hair when they walk by. Curly, light hair – and especially blue eyes – are not common, so foreign kids can be quite a spectacle.

 As they say in Japan, all these girls were kawaii! (super cute!)

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