Each January that I have been in Japan, early in the month, I have made the recommended pilgrimage to the temples of the Shichi Fukujin (the Seven Lucky Gods), to secure blessings in the critical areas of being: happiness; health; prosperity; wisdom; longevity; commerce; and of course, virility. An extra side benefit is that these gods also preside over some seldom considered aspects of life such as scourging (yes, that is actually a verb) evildoers, presiding over chess matches, and overseeing flood control, all handy attributes of a god, in my estimation.
These gods are altogether more jovial (and a good deal more earthy) than their main counterpart in the West. One, Juro-jin, is said to be a bit of a drunkard and a womanizer, somewhat atypical attributes for a deity; nonetheless, he is the god of teachers, scientists and mathematicians. Another, Hotei, sometimes pretends to be a beggar, although his ever-present bag is said to contain everything necessary for daily living. He is a jolly fellow sometimes known as the Laughing Buddha, and the god of children, fortune tellers and bartenders (no, I’m not making this up). Benzaiten, the only female in the group, known for her capriciousness and jealousy, is the goddess of artists, musicians and gamblers. Fukurokuju, an ancient Chinese god, is the god of wisdom, also the go-to guy for athletes and watchmakers. Bishamonten, whose origins are in India, is the god of doctors, soldiers and priests, a dignified character charged with defense of the faith. Ebisu, one of the more popular gods, is a native Japanese, the patron deity of sailors, middle managers, merchants and foreigners. Last but not least is Daikokuten, the god of craftsmen, millers and businessmen; known to be a fierce demon chaser when not otherwise engaged. Also, he is the aforementioned flood control guru.
So, all over Japan the temples gear up for the pilgrimage, the nearby neighborhoods teem with impromptu food and souvenir stands, and the atmosphere grows festive and just a tiny bit boisterous (but of course in a very polite and not-even-slightly-in-your-face Japanese manner). The pilgrims purchase a shikishi card, a gold-rimmed cardboard sheet perhaps 8 x 10”, upon which are stamped the seals of the temples visited. Once all seven seals are duly gathered, the stamped card is displayed prominently near one’s front door, in case the gods should pay a visit during the upcoming year.
This year, I went to the temples of Kawagoe, an old town in Saitama, an hour or so to the west of Tokyo. The downtown area of Kawagoe remains much as it was before the war: the utility lines and pipes underground; narrow and sometimes winding streets; small stores and restaurants with their names prominently displayed on hanging lanterns or noren (curtains hanging in the doorways). Delectable aromas waft out from bakeries, yakitori stands, mochi stalls, and restaurants of every description (every description, so long as it is Japanese, that is…). The crowds were humongous, and there were long queues at several of the temples, but this was no hardship, as there were photo ops at every turn; I went through one memory card and three batteries in the space of just a few hours!
All in all, a lovely way to while away a sunny afternoon, meandering through one small corner of Old Japan, securing blessings along the way.