Seisui-ji could not be more different than its colossal neighbour, Senso-ji. A modest modernist structure built in 1993, we identify it by the golden dharma wheel on the face of the second floor balcony. Bright prayer flags frame an open window on the balcony. There are no crowds. We ring the doorbell and when a young man answers we have the awkward feeling that we are intruding in a private home. Once we’ve shown him our go-shuin books he understands and escorts us to the lovely shrine, leaving us alone there while he takes our books to the monk for inscription.
Despite its modern look, Seisui-ji dates to the 9th Century, though the original temple was located more than three miles away. It was built to house a Kannon statue that, according to legend, saved Tokyo from a terrible epidemic. Marcus Powles’ book tells us that the monk who carved the statue prostrated himself 3 times before every stroke of his chisel. When he finished carving the statue and placed it in the temple, the epidemic ended.
The original statue was destroyed in a fire, but before us is a Kannon that dates from the 14th Century. All the way back to Chaucer’s time, I can’t help but think. It was Canterbury Tales that introduced me to the concept of pilgrimage. The thought of the Knight and the Miller and the Lady of Bath takes me back to memorizing the opening lines of the poem in high school. As I sit, trying to let go of these thoughts and to meditate, I am finally overwhelmed by my bladder. That beer I had with lunch. My body getting the better of me. I tell Ranjini I’m going to look for a washroom, but I can’t find our host, and the urgency of my mission makes me leave the temple altogether, telling Ranjini I’ll meet her there in a few minutes. She agrees and goes back to her meditation.
We would not have recognized the temple if it had not been for the gold wheel of the dharma chakra, a symbol of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path of Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Standing with Lee by the bare plum tree with the Zen garden to one side, we are disoriented by the smallness of Seisui-ji. We are the only pilgrims here.
On the first floor, I admire a scroll with the Heart Sutra. A young man guides us to the shrine and shuts the door behind him. The shrine is gold leaves and flowers, candles, black lacquer and hanging lanterns. After the millions of pilgrims at Senso-ji—the bronze-roofed incense burner, thick smoke, roof of 70, 000 bronze tiles, falling oracle sticks—here, there is silence. When Lee leaves in search of a restroom, I remain seated before a many-armed gold Kannon. To the side of this elegant altar, I spot an unusual looking Japanese Kannon: she is around two-feet tall, a young woman with straight-black shoulder length hair and a gold disc of a seated Amitabha on the crown of her head.
Now, the young man returns with our go-shuin books and it is 4:30 pm and closing time. I wait outside for my Beloved. When Lee returns, we cross the road and enter a store stacked with beautiful bowls. I am drawn especially to a bowl with the image of an orange phoenix, mythical bird, fire and ashes, symbol of endings and new beginnings. I am bone-weary of the rapidity of the many beginnings and endings of my life and I walk away from the beckoning phoenix. Tired of packing and unpacking, disposing and giving away things, storing and shipping things, I am also trying to buy less, own less.
On Kappabashi Dogugai Avenue, we stroll past plastic food displays—steak, sushi and fruit baskets, and a cut-out of a chef floating high above a corner building. In a tiny store cluttered with stainless pots, I spot a small crème plaster-of-paris Kannon, right knee raised, seated on a lotus in regal repose: six U.S. dollars. I ask the old woman if she has a second Kannon similar to this, and she rummages, unearths a box. For 10 U.S. dollars, I buy two Kannons—one for each of us to take back to our separate homes to mark the first day of our pilgrimage.