text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
I have written before about O-Inari-sama, the fox-faced god of rice and O-Jizo-sama, patron of unborn children and travelers –and at some point I will write about Kannon-sama, the Buddhist personification of compassion and one of the most important superficial entities of Sino-Japanese tradition. But if we are talking about the absolute product of Japanese synthesis as applied to theology, the choice will unavoidably be one, the following seven: Ebisu (恵比寿), Daikokuten (大黒天), Benzaiten (弁財天), Bishamonten (毘沙門天), Hotei (布袋), Fukurokuju (福禄寿) and Jurojin (寿老人) collectively known as “Shichifukujin” (七福神) or “Seven Gods of Good Fortune” worshipped by the Japanese alone, in pairs or, more often, all together since the Edo times.
Each of them has his (or her: Benzaiten is a woman) own story starting from China (for Hotei, Fukurokuju and Jurojin), India (for Daikokuten, Benzaiten and Bishamonten) or Japan itself (Ebisu) and I’m sure that somewhere in the world, some comparative religion student has probably done their thesis tracing their journey through the centuries from one culture to the other and the transformations that brought them on the ship called “Takarabune” (宝船) or “Treasure Boat”. What is important for the Japanese is that this ship arrives in our world every year on December 31 bringing to the people prosperity, happiness, longevity and all sorts of material goods. And to reassure their share of the seven cheerful deities, they buy their images in every possible and impossible shape.
To experience the Shichifukujin in the way more appropriate to the Edo traditions, one should choose one of Tokyo’s “Shichifukujin Meguri” (七福神巡り/七福神めぐり); “meguri” means “pilgrimage” or simply “tour” and translates to a visit to seven temples each dedicated to one of the seven deities. There are several of these heptads, mostly in the city’s eastern part and the meguri are usually accompanied by the purchase of some special souvenir from each temple –the cheapest are the temples’ seals called “shuin” (朱印) in a special book called “nokyocho” (納経帳). Even if you don’t believe in the good luck brought by the pilgrimage, it is a very good excuse to wander around Ginza, Asakusa, Yanaka, Shitaya, Adachi, Katsushika, Kameido or Fukugawa –I’m pretty sure that’s why the Edokko came up with the idea.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit http://about.me/GrigorisMiliaresis and http://www.japanarekore.gr/
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