Sunday, January 17, 2021

Remembering the Great Gyonin-zaka Fire

 --Susan, every other Sunday

Hello again from Tokyo! This week, I'd like to share a hidden historical gem that's close to home (for me at least): Daienji, a Tendai Buddhist temple not far from my home in Tokyo's Meguro Ward.

The main gate at Daienji

I visited the temple last weekend, as part of a walking pilgrimage to visit the shichifukujin, or "Seven Gods of Good Fortune"--a New Year tradition in Japan. The Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage near my home in Meguro is the oldest one in Tokyo, and unusual in that each of the lucky gods is enshrined in a Buddhist Temple, rather than a Shinto shrine. 

Daienji, which sits about a five minute walk from Meguro station on a steep hill called Gyonin-Zaka, is the fourth of six temples on the pilgrimage (the previous temple, Myoenji, enshrines two of the gods of god fortune). The temple was founded in 1624 as a center of Tendai teaching and worship. The principal image is that of Dainichi Nyorai, the central deity of esoteric Buddhism.

An obelisk outside the temple gate

A secondary shrine within the temple grounds enshrines the deity Daikoku--the patron of wealth, farmers, and the kitchen. This is where people pray on the seven lucky gods pilgrimage, although most visitors pay respects to Dainichi Nyorai also.


One of the few purification fountains still running---but please don't use it at the moment.

The dragon-headed purification fountain pictured above sits just to the left of the main gate, at the temple entrance. Most of Japan's purification fountains currently are not in operation (many are dry for the first time in memory), and even those still running, like this one, have signs nearby asking people to forego the customary ritual cleansing of hands and mouths, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Main worship hall (hondo) of Daienji

The main temple yard contains not only the hondo (worship hall) but also the secondary shrine dedicated to the god of good fortune. To the right of the worship hall, you can see a seated Buddha partially covered in gold leaf. The statue represents Yakushi Nyorai, the god of healing, and for 500 yen (about $5 USD) you can purchase sheets of gold leaf to place on the Buddha's body. Apparently, if you lay the gold on the place that hurts, the Buddha will take your pain away. I wasn't hurting last weekend, so I can't tell you whether or not this works, but I'll keep it in mind the next time my ankle acts up.

The Seven Lucky Gods

Statues on the temple grounds represent the seven gods of good fortune.

Shaka Nyorai and the Arhats (also a surprisingly good band name)

In 1772, a massive fire swept through Edo (now Tokyo), destroying much of the city. The fire, now known as the Great Gyonin-Zaka Fire, is believed to have begun on the grounds of Daienji (although the precise cause is unknown). After the fire, the statues in the next few pictures were constructed and placed on the temple grounds as a memorial to the people who perished in the fire. 

The large seated figure above is Shaka Nyorai, the historical Buddha (Prince Siddhartha, Gautama Buddha). The small statues in the background are 491 arhats, or disciples of the Buddha, each of which has a different face, position, and expression.

More of the Arhats

Collections of 500 arhats can be seen across Japan; they represent various disciples of the Buddha and have been installed on mountainsides, and at various Buddhist temples. These were created as an act of worship, over a period of years. The oldest arhats bear inscriptions stating they were created in 1763, but most of the figures were made and installed after 1781. The Buddhas in the foreground were added after the temple was rebuilt in 1848.

As a native Californian transplanted to and living in Japan, it's a humbling experience to visit a local temple--just a 40-minute walk from my apartment--and to realize that it has stood here longer than the country of my birth (to say nothing of my native state) has even existed. 

It's also a good reminder that history isn't only something we read about in books. It lives, and breathes, down every street and in every paving stone. Sometimes you have to look for it, but the search is well worthwhile when it unearths a hidden treasure like Daienji. 


  1. Beautiful, Susan. And other memories it brings back of all those times we stopped at fountains to do the cleansing ritual together. I miss you SOOO MUCH!

  2. It is something I love about big cities -- fascinating nooks and crannies, and buildings and shrines, many of which are overlooked by hurried tourists and residents.

  3. Susan, if any Californian ever hit upon a better time to transplant to Japan, I can't imagine who that would be. You're Prescient.