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In 628, Japan’s capital was at Asuka (present day Nara Prefecture) and what would become Tokyo was still mostly uninhabited grasslands. Two fishermen, Hinokuma Hamanari and his brother Takenari, were on the Sumida River one day when they heard a command from the heavens to cast their net. When they brought up the net, they saw that they had caught a golden statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon.
Hearing of this from the Hinokuma brothers, village head Haji Nakamoto decided that he would become a devout believer in Bodhisattva Kannon. He took vows as a Buddhist priest, remade his home into a temple and spent the rat of his life practicing Buddhism. This episode marks the birth of Tokyo’s oldest temple and the start of Senso-ji’s history.
In 645, the renowned Buddhist priest Shokai visited Asakusa and built a hall for the worship of the Bodhisattva Kannon; that makes him the actual founder of Senso-ji. After having a mysterious dream one night, Shokai decided that Bodhisattva cannon should be hidden from human view, and it has remained so ever since. Word of blessing bestowed by Bodhisattva Kannon spread wide and far, and many people who heard of this came to worship at Senso-ji from all over Japan. As a result, Asakusa flourished and grew into a large district.
In the mid ninth century, Ennin (794-864), the highest ranking priest of Enryaku-ji, the head temple of the Tendai School of Buddhism, visited Senso-ji, created a Statue of Bodhisattva Kannon identical to the hidden one and called its spirit into the new statue. Senso-ji, thus further developed by Ennin, attracted devout faithful not only amongst commoners but also famous samurai and persons of culture. Designated a sacred site of prayer for the shogunate of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), founder of the Edo shogunate, Senso-ji reached a peak of prosperity.
Over the intervening centuries until today, Senso-ji has remained a center of culture and worship in Tokyo. It continues to be very influential in people’s lives, and with millions of people visiting each year, it is one of Japan’s most familiar temples.
Senso-ji and Asakusa are intimately linked. The two names are written using the same Chinese characters (浅草) but pronounced differently, “Senso” being the Chinese pronunciation and “Asakusa” the native Japanese Pronunciation.