Bigger is Better: Adventures in Fukagawa

The following day after seeing Sojiji Temple and Yokohama Chukagai, I was happy to meet another blog reader: “Marcus”, star of various blogs over the years, and another long-time reader. Him and I both have a history of changing blogs, but thankfully we’ve always kept in touch, and it was nice to meet him in person at last.

Marcus was joined by his wife, and I was joined by my little girl who wanted to spend time with Daddy. Plus, my wife was sick and wanted some sleep ;). Marcus had invited us to the Fukugawa district in Tokyo, which is pretty far from where I normally stay with my in-laws in Kawasaki City, southwest of Tokyo. I had no idea what to expect at Fukugawa, but suffice to say I wasn’t disappointed.

Fukugawa has a major Shingon Buddhist temple named Fukugawa Fudō Hall (深川不動堂) which is quietly tucked inside an alleyway right next to Monzen-Nakachō Station:

Fukugawa Daishi alleyway

This temple actually is a kind of branch temple to the well-known Narita-san Temple way over in Chiba Prefecture (really close to the airport, oddly enough). Its main figure is Fudo Myoo, a popular figure in Japanese esoteric Buddhism, and someone whom I encountered years ago with reader “Johnl”, when we got to see the famous Goma ritual.

The temple is deceptively large. Here’s how it looks from the outside:

Fukugawa Daishi

And this building to the left:

Fukugawa Daishi Building

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but the building is covered in Sanskrit letters or “bonji” used in esoteric Buddhism, called Siddham. You see them frequently used in Japanese Buddhism, but especially in Shingon and Tendai Buddhist sects. Certain Siddham “letters” represent various Buddhist divinities, though further appreciation and understanding comes as part of esoteric Buddhist training, which I don’t have. 🙂

Unfortunately, I couldn’t take any pictures inside. Believe me, the temple is pretty awesome, so I have to try and describe it as best as I can.

We went into the temple, and immediately to the left was a huge auditorium-style room, which is visible here on the temple website. On the far wall, high above was a statue of Fudo Myoo. It’s actually much larger than the picture shows, and the place was packed with people because it was just after New Year’s. Luckily, we found a seat off to the right, and we had come at the right time because we had stumbled into the beginning of the Goma ritual.

As with the one I saw years ago, it starts out pretty slow at first. In this case, they read the names of various people who sought blessings before Fudo Myoo. Once this concluded, then things started to pick up, as a small fire was started in the sacred space in the middle, similar to what is shown here on their website. Meanwhile, the drums started beating, and the attendant priests behind them started chanting. As the fire built up, other priests took some wooden tablets or ofuda and briefly waved them over the fire one by one. Presumably, people had registered for this ahead of time for various blessings, and these were being purified now.

Anyhow, by this point, the chanting and drum beats really got loud and fast-paced, and the fire within the sacred space had grown pretty tall. My daughter, who’s never seen a Buddhist ritual like this, wanted to know what was going on. I told her that this was getting rid of bad things (i.e. purification), and she interpreted that to mean “getting rid of the bad guys“, as in Disney bad guys. The Disney bad guys are the bad people she plays with often at home. So, then she replied that this ritual was supposed to be loud so that they would get startled and fall into the fire. Those were her words, really. 🙂

Unlike the Goma ritual I saw before, the priests did not lead the audience to approach and pay respects to Fudo Myoo, and the ritual came to an abrupt end as the drumbeats wound down, and the priests started to file out. One priest stayed behind and gave a brief talk, but the acoustics were not good, and I couldn’t understand much of what he said. I think he was talking about the temple itself, but I am not sure. Once the ritual was over, my daughter asked me if they would do it again. I was really surprised because the whole ritual probably took and hour, but she wasn’t bored.

From there, we filed toward the back of the room where we got some charms, and moved to the second floor, which was a kind of worship hall/musuem. There were several rooms on the second floor, all lined up with many Buddhist deities. One room was cool because it was all in black-light, with prayer wheels underneath glowing images of Buddhist deities. People would gravitate to the Buddhist figure of their choice, leave a coin donation and pay their respects. My daughter and I visited quite a few and emptied out all the spare change in my wallet.1 🙂

The next room didn’t have black light, but had many wooden statues of the same deities under normal lighting. We paid our respects here too, and then moved to the 3rd floor. On the third floor was a huge altar room devoted to Mahavairocana Buddha, the principal figure of devotion in Shingon Buddhism, but the walls were lined with many identical figures of Mahavairocana as well, all in gold.

Again, the temple is much bigger inside than it looks on the outside, but it was pretty awesome. Given that it’s pretty close to downtown Tokyo and Ginza, it’s one of those places I’d highly recommend.

From there, we ate lunch at a nearby restaurant back in the alleyway, where we had some curry and pizza. The pizza was excellent and my daughter enjoyed that alot. Marcus’s wife and I ordered the curry, only it turned out not to be Japanese curry (which is mild), but instead it was VERY SPICY INDIAN CURRY. I enjoyed it because it came with Indian-style yogurt which mixed well, but Marcus’s wife definitely suffered that lunch. The menu never mentioned that it was Indian curry, so we had no idea what we were getting into. 😉

Once lunch was done, we went to nearby Sumiyoshi Park which is the subject of another post coming up. 🙂

P.S. For more information about the Goma ritual, and it’s significance in Buddhism, read here.

1 This happens everytime I go to Japan: I build up a lot of spare change, then use it up at Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “Bigger is Better: Adventures in Fukagawa”

  1. That was great! That neighborhood has a lot of interesting stuff–it is one of the typical ‘shitamachi’ areas. I also made a special trip to the Fudo-son a while ago, but the big new building was still under construction. I need to go again, I see. On a side note, you mentioned Narita temple near the airport. If anyone has a layover at the airport without enough time to go all the way to Tokyo, the temple is definitely worth a visit, and you can easily spend a couple of hours there. There is a large park-like area with lots of auxiliary temples that is very interesting (assuming the weather is good). Many interesting shops and restaurants as well.

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    1. Hi John,

      Glad you enjoyed it. I certainly did. I didn’t realize it was part of the whole shitamachi (下町) until yesterday when I happened to look at a map of downtown Tokyo. My geography is surprisingly poor in Japan, despite visiting often, probably because I can’t use Internet easily. ;p

      Anyhow, yeah, I would love to visit Narita-san. I saw a documentary about it once, and it seemed like a pretty awesome temple, though I am unclear how to get there from the airport. Their english-language instructions assume a starting point from Tokyo. Also, I tend to arrive in the late-afternoon when I am already extremely tired and eager to get to my in-laws home. 🙂

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