To Start the New Year-The Seven Gods of Good Fortune (七福神)- in Treasure Ships, under your pillow, or as part of a mini pilgrimage: SHICHIFUKUJIN MEGURI
By Avi Landau
The number 7 has been long been held to be special or LUCKY in various civilizations around the world. Perhaps this is because there are 7 days in the phases of the moon ( which means seven days in a week), or because there are seven large celestial objects in our solar system which are visible to the naked eye- the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn ( after which the seven days of the week are named in Japanese). Maybe it is because of the seven stars ( including the important North Star) which are part of the Little Dipper ( Ursa Major).
The fact that it is a prime number ( cannot be obtained by multiplying two smaller number together) also adds to its mystery.
Whatever the reason actually is, throughout human history 7 has been used to create iconic groupings: the Seven Days of Creation, Shakespeare`s Seven Stages of Man, the seven notes in Western music`s major scale, the Seven Wonders of the World, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove ( in China), the Seven Samurai, the Seven Dwarfs…………
The list goes astonishingly on and on and ON. Groupings of seven, since classical antiquity, in the arts and religion.
In ancient Japan, as well, the number seven was considered a sacred number (along with eight). From the way it is used in Japan`s earliest texts ( the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki in which such groupings as the seven nights, the seven days, the seven villages, etc. appear) it was clearly a number which helped to connect man with the divine.
The way seven was used in some of Japan`s oldest folk tales ( SHICHININ DO-GYO-, SHICHININ MISAKI, and SHICHININ KARI, for example) also shows how this number was special, but not only in a lucky way. It often represents the mysterious or even the dreadful.
By the Kamakura Period, however, the number 7 seems to have lost its connection with magic and the inexplainable among the common people. It came to resemble what it has long been for so many other peoples of the world- LUCKY SEVEN – a number which would bring happiness and drive misfortune away.
Surely one reason for this was the popular Buddhist adage (brought over from China) which goes: The Seven Troubles will Pass and The Seven Good Fortunes will Arrive ( SHICHI NAN SOKUMETSU SHICHI FUKU SOKUSHO, 七難即滅七福即生).
And that is why by the end of the Muromachi Period ( 1336 to 1573), when Japan`s most iconic GROUPING- that of the Lucky Deities- came into being, their number was set at SEVEN ( though their number and identity of the members have gone through many changes before being set in their present form).
The Seven Deities of Good Fortune- the SHICHI FUKUJIN (七福神) now consist of long and well-loved characters from the Buddhist ( India and China), Taoist (China), and Native Japanese traditions. They are each easily recognizable by their features or by what they wear or hold- and each is said to provide a different reward to those who pay them homage.
The Seven Deities are often shown riding together in a ship- the TAKARA BUNE- or Treasure ship, which might have, for the inhabitants of this island nation, represented the good things, both material and spiritual, that have come from abroad since ancient times.
The SHIFUKUJIN are especially popular in the first week of the year, a time at which ( as I have explained many times before in past articles) the Japanese have traditionally tried to compile as much ENGI (lucky associations) as possible, by visiting shrines and temples, and displaying and purchasing objects heavy laden which multiple layers of LUCKY symbolism.
In the New Year season not only do many Japanese display their SHICHIFUKUJIN figurines or hanging scrolls, but there are certain popular SHICHIFUKUJIN PILGRIMAGE courses ( SHICHIFUKUJIN MEGURI) in various parts of the country, many of which can be made in a few (fun-filled) hours.
These mini-pilgrimages became extremely popular in Japan`s big cities during the Edo Period ( especially toward its end in the early to mid 19th Century).
Later, in the late 19th century, it was common to put a picture ( printed on paper) of the Seven Deities riding in a Treasure Ship under ones pillow on the second night of the new year. This would help bring auspicious First Dreams of the year ( HATSU YUME).
If one did have a bad dream anyway, this paper was then buried in the ground or cast off into water to cleanse oneself of the impurities it brought.
On some of these treasure ship pictures you can see the Kanji character for BAKU (獏), a mythical Chinese beast which eats bad dreams, printed on the sail.
(I have also seen examples of these Treasure Ship papers inscribed with a mysterious palindrome (回文 KAIMON), said to have been composed by Prince Shotoku*)
These Treasure Ship sheets were sold before New Years at the shrines/temples of Kyoto and by street vendors in Edo ( though in the Edo Period they carried 7 species of food plants, not the Seven Lucky Gods).
This custom still exists today. Last year I was given such a printed sheet by a friend who told me to put it under my pillow on the first night of the new year.
For me, the great popularity of these flagrantly FOREIGN deities ( even the name of the native Japanese diety, Ebisu, implies something which has been washed up on Japan`s shores) and the treasure ships ( also representing good things things coming from abroad) during Japan`s Period of National Isolation (SAKOKU) is extremely curious.
Could it have been a subtle criticism of the Shogun`s policies of keeping Japan`s ports closed ( with the exception of Nagasaki)?
Interestingly, the Shichifukujin, and especially the mini-pilgrimages made to them, dramatically declined in popularity from the onset of the Sino-Japanese War through the end of WWII. But after decades of trying to dominate the continent militarily, the Japanese fell back once again in the post-war years to praying to the GOODS/GODS brought from abroad, and the Seven Lucky Deities have enjoyed a great revival ever since. In hard economic times ( like the ones we are living in now) more people than ever seem to be visiting these deities at the beginning of the year- anything to bring about a change.
Two of Tokyo`s most historically important SHICHIFUKUJIN MEGURI New Year`s pilgirimage circuits are very easilly reached from Tsukuba- by the TX or Joban Lines.
One, the Yanaka Shichifukujin Meguri (谷中七福神めぐり) begins in Tabata (on the Yamanote Line) and takes you through some of Tokyo`s most atmospheric neighborhoods - Nishi Nippori, Nippori, Yanaka, and Ueno.
The other, the Sumidagawa Shichifukujin Meguri (隅田川七福神めぐり), starts near the infamous Asahi Beer Building ( the one with the golden turd on its roof), on the other side of the Sumida River when leaving the Asakusa Station.
Going on a Shichifukujin Pilgrimage means that you walk ( or drive) to a series of set shrines and temples which each possess images of one (or more) of the Seven Deities . When you finish the circuit, you will have paid homage to each of them.
Many people carry a stamp book or special paper which they have stamped at each of these temples/shrines which they then take home with them- proof that they have completed the pilgrimage. Many Japanese just seem to get energized by having the specific task of finding all the shrines/temples and completing the collection of STAMPS. Its almost like a game ( especially for non-locals who need a map to find each of the sites).
I will try to write detailed descriptions of these courses in the next couple of days. I do recommend doing them by the tenth of this month as each of these temples, besides exuding an exciting New Years atmosphere, have images and gardens which are on special, temporary display.
Oh, how rude of me. I almost forgot. Let me introduce them to you- the Seven Lucky Deities:
( Please remember than each of these Deities have extremely complex and interesting backgrounds and symbolic meanings- and there are volumes dedicated to each one. This is only the barest of descriptions)
EBISU: God of Success in Business and Fishing. Worshiped since ancient times in what is now Hyogo Prefecture. He is recognized by his fishing rod, or fish. He wears a cap.
DAIKOKUTEN: A God of Good Harvests, Plentiful food, and good luck in general. This God is the Japanese manifestation of the Hindu God Shiva, whose image is extremely important at the Enryakuji Temple, on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto. He is also associated with the Japanese God O-Kuninushi no Mikoto. He carries a big bag over his shoulders ( like a Japanese Santa Claus) bearing good fortune- this is why many Japanese shops and department stores sell LUCKY BAGS- FUKU BUKURO on the first few days of the year. He also holds a mallet and wears a cap.
BISHAMONTEN: A God of courage, victory in battle and academic success, protector of the Northern Direction, he is a Japanese manifestation of the Indian God Kubera. The only one of the Lucky Deities with a fierce expression on his face ( though sometimes he is not portrayed grimacing). He wears armour and carries a spear. He has for long been popular as an object of worship on Kyoto`s Mt. Kurama.
BENZAITEN: A Goddess of Culture and the Arts, she is the Japanese manifestaiton of the Hindu Goddess Sarasvati. She was also the popular object of worship in Japan at Chikubu Shima Island in Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. She carries a musical instrument ( resembling a lute). And she has come to be associated in Japan with snakes (for reasons I will reveal in another post) temples dedicated to this deity might be especially popular at the the beginning of Years of the Snake.
JU-RO-JIN: A Taoist God of Longevity, he is bearded, wears a cap and carries a staff and a fan ( with brushes away misfortune)
FUKUROKUJU-: God of Long Life and Protector of the Directions, this Taoist Deity has an elongated bald head.His name is especially auspicious with FUKU- luck, ROKU- position in society, and JU- long life making up his name, and he thus represents thriving descendants, financial success, and long life.
HOTEI-ZON: The only one of the deities to have been an actual person- he was a revered Chinese Zen monk . This fat, bald and jolly God ( often seen at Chinese temples) also carries a bag ( of goods) and is a deity of human fertility, marital harmony, and success in financial matters.
As you can see from the brief explanation above, some of these gods (Ebisu, Daitoku, Bishamon and Benzaiten) had long been popular objects of worship at specific and separate shrines/temples in Western Japan ( where Osaka and Kyoto are located). Long before the GROUPING of SEVEN was decided upon and set as it is today, it was common to pair the gods Ebisu and Daitoku to pray for good fishing catches and good harvests and general business success. But since in Japan there is always the sense that when it comes to compiling LUCK- the more, the better, and other gods- Benzaiten and Bishamon were added to the group, making Four Lucky Deities.. This did not last long, since, EVEN numbers (such as four) , are not considered very auspicious in Japan ( or China), as they can be easily DIVIDED. And besides that, one of the readings of the number 4 in Japanese is SHI, which is a homophone for the word meaning death. Not very auspicious. So another god- HOTEI was added to make it five.
Things were then taken further, to seven, but in deciding upon the last two gods there was some controversy. First, another female deity- KICHIJO-TEN, was added to the grouping ( and is still included in some parts of Japan). However, two quite similar deities from the Taoist pantheon won out- JU-RO-JIN and FUKUROKUJU and are now included in the standard set. Both of these deities of longevity are considered to be manifestations of the Southern Star ( NANKYOKU NO HOSHI, 南極の星), which is rarely visible in the Northern Hemisphere and is believed to represent longevity ( which was once extremely rare. It is interesting that on some of the first popular SHICHIFUKJIN pilgrimage courses in Edo there were only six shrines/temples included – with a prayer to the southern star counting as a prayer to JU-RO-JIN.
Just exactly when the first such New Years pilgrimage circuits began in the Shoguns capital of Edo ( as opposed to the Imperial Capital at that time- Kyoto) is unclear, but there eventually came into being several popular courses.
I will now describe one of the most famous of these, discontinued with the onset of WWll, but recently revived ( in an altered form) with the SHICHIFUKUJIN BOOM of the past few decades:
The YANAKA SHICHIFUKUJIN MEGURI (谷中の七福神)
From the To-gakuji Temple near Tabata Station, to the Benzaiten Hall in Ueno Park it can take a few hours to visit the seven temples on this course ( and make a few detours as well). But anyone interested in Japanese history and culture will not want this one to end ( or at least will want to come back for more exploring). This was Edo`s TEMPLE TOWN and it is simply astounding how many temples there are there ( as many temples were moved to this area after the Great Furisode Fire of 1657). Fortunately, it was also left almost untouched by the firebombings of the Second World War ( especially Yanaka). In the Edo Period ( and for decades more) this was one of Edo/Tokyo`s most scenic areas- a popular place for viewing Mt. Fuji, the moon, the snow, or the sound of autumn insects. The Dokan Yama embankment ( built by the same engineer, Ota Dokan, who built Edo Castle) created an elevated space ( providing views of both Mt Fuji and Mt Tsukuba) which still exists today- though now besides the upper portion of Mt Fuji on clear days, all you can really admire in the distance is endless CONCRETE JUNGLE, TRAIN TRACKS, and the Tokyo Sky tree.
Let me tell you how to start from Tsukuba.
Take the TX to Akihabara, go up to the ground level ( by escalator), turn left, and get a ticket ( if you need one) to Tabata ( 150 Yen).
Enter the JR station and proceed to platform 2 to catch the Yamanote Line.
Get on the train and get out at the 6th stop from Akihabara- TABATA.
Go to your right and walk to the escalator all the way at the end of the platform, which will take you to the North Gate of the station.
Turn left onto the big road which runs like a river through a concrete canyon.
A few hundred meters down this road there is a traffic light. Cross the street there, take a few steps to your left, and turn right down the narrow road. This will take you shortly to To-gakuji (東覚寺), the first temple on the course.
Togakuji is interesting ANYTIME you visit- because of its very photogenic stone guardians- which are covered with RED PAPER. According to temple lore, if some part of your body ails you, stick a piece of red paper on the same spot on one of the statues. If you feel better, as thanks, it is customary to give the temple a pair of straw sandals.
During the first ten days of the year ,however, this place is really special. They even have some staff to serve visitors hot AMAZAKE ( sweet non-alcoholic sake dregs) during that period.
At this temple you will find a surprisingly wide selection of Japanese lucky symbols, Deities, Buddhas, and auspicious plants. Many of these are in the garden ( in the back) which is only open during the first ten days of the year.
When you do stroll around this garden, you will soon realize that it is a veritable MINI SHICHIFUKUJIN course within a shichifukujin course, as you will find ( if you look hard enough) images of each of the Seven Gods within its walls.
Step inside the main hall. There are so many images to admire ( including replicas of my favorite pieces of Japanese art- the Heavenly Musicians of Byodo-in`s Pheonix Hall) that you might not even realize that at this, the first temple of the Yanaka Shichifukujin, the main image is that of FUKUROKUJU.
In the temples office you can pick up the paper sheet with which you can gather the seven stands needed to complete the pilgrimage.
Stepping back out, walk to your left and you will notice a shrine way in the back ( a Hachiman Shrine), which was once part of the temple ( until Buddhism and Shintoism were forcibly separated from each other during the Meiji Period.
Now walk back the way you came, to the main road, but this time dont turn back towards the station. Cross the street and go straight. This neighborhood was once famous for the great number of talented literary figures who lived there. After a hundred yards or so you will see on your left the restaurant at which the great writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke got married.
When you reach the t-junction a little way further, turn right. You will soon see the THIEF PREVENTING JIZO STONES ( ZOKU YOKE JIZO, 賊除地蔵), in front of the Yoraku-Ji Temple (与楽寺) which was once attacked by thieves who were driven off by tenacious priests. This temple is not part of the Shichifukujin Course, so you might just want to keep going, after having a look at the stones.
now you have to make a choice- keep walking straight for a more direct route, or head up to the top of the DOKAN YAMA embankment for a more scenic walk. If you are like me, you will walk them both!
If you do keep going straight past the ZOKU YOKE JIZO, you will turn left a little ways up when you get to an intersection with a house on the far right-hand side surrounded by a low stone wall with a tree stump jutting out slightly over it.
When you see a laundromat/bath house shortly on your left, its time to turn right. Soon you will get to a main road which would take you to the Nishi Nippori Station if you turned left. Do not turn. Cross the street and continue a bit further along the road. Soon you will reach reach SEIUN-JI (青雲寺) , the second temple on the course, which displays an image of EBISU (see above).
When you have seen the image and gotten your stamp ( or just watch the others doing this) you go back out to the road you were just on and keep going in the same direction. Soon you will be at the third temple, SHUSEI-IN (修性院), which you will easilly recognize by the large cartoonish images of HOTEI, the fat and jolly Zen monk, painted on its outer wall.
The actual image of Hotei in the temple`s Main Hall, is the most impressive of the Yanaka Shichikukujin.
Leaving this temple turn to the left and walk a few meters and then turn left once again, up what is called the FUJIMI ZAKA (富士見坂)- the Fuji-Viewing Slope. During the winter months, Mt. Fuji is in fact visible from up on the embankment at sunset. When you get to the top of the slope you will see a signboard with photos of what the view is like if you dont have a chance to actually see it.
If you have time, before walking to the right along the embankment ( which is the direction you nned to go to procede with the pilgrimage), have a walk around the Suwa Shrine on your left.
To be continued……………..
*The palindrome which can be found on certain TAKARABUNE pictures from the late Meiji Period to the early Showa Period only reads as one if written in KANA script. It goes:
It was said that this incantation should be recited three times before sleeping to ensure GOOD dreams.