A Benzaiten Pilgrimage


My long awaited trip to Japan coincided with a fierce typhoon that passed over the country during my stay in the coastal city of Kamakura. As I lay listening to the wind howling outside and the shutters banging against the side of the house, I began to understand how it came to be that an entire region was convinced that a monstrous five-headed dragon was terrorising the coastline. From the relentless, wind-whipped ocean with waves crashing into the shore, to the ghastly winds that seemed intent on tearing away everything in their path, if ever I had sensed the presence of a dragon, it was that night. And so when I woke the next morning to find the house still miraculously standing and the sky now a clear, bright blue, I too felt a debt to the benevolent goddess Benzaiten, who must obviously have weaved her magic to placate the fierce beast. As promised by the locals, the majestic Mount Fuji that had been thus far obscured by haze was now clearly visible across the bay. And as we gazed at it in the distance, with Enoshima Island sitting calmly in the still choppy waters, I sensed the real magic of this region of Japan and ventured forth to pay my respects to Lady Benzaiten.



Who is the Goddess Benzaiten?

In Japanese folklore there are tales known as the Enoshima Engi which tell of the goddess Benzaiten and her connection to a fierce dragon named Gozuru who terrorised the people along the coast of Kanagawa, an hour south of Tokyo. The tale goes that when the dragon set eyes on the goddess he fell in love and wished to marry her. Benzaiten agreed, on the condition that he stop his violent behvaiour. Some believe that she created Enoshima Island from the sea to contain the dragon while in other versions of the tale, she creates the island as her home when she arrived in the area. It is also said that when the dragon died he lay down and formed the shape of the coastline, while others believe he lies beneath Enoshima to this day. Over time, both the dragon and Benzaiten were believed to be protectors of the entire region.

'Benzaiten Seated on a Dragon' - Keisei.

Today, Benzaiten is seen as a goddess of water and all things that flow including music, poetry, speech, learning, fertility (crops), longevity, wealth and good fortune. She is the only female member of the Shichi Fukujin (or seven lucky gods of Japan). Also known as Benten, she is depicted as a  beautiful woman usually holding a biwa (a traiditonal Japanese stringed instrument). She is connected to dragons and serpents, particularly white snakes. Derived from the Hindu river goddess Sarasvati, she arrived in Japan along with Buddhism but became a deity associated with both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. It seems she was conflated with the Shinto kami Ugajin who was a deity of the harvest and fertility and was depicted as either the head of an older male or female on the body of a snake. In this form Benzaiten is often depicted with a Torii on her head, and sometimes even a curled snake. Benzaiten is one of the most popular goddesses in Japan today and is still widely worshiped, often in the hope of finding love or fortune, or both.

'Benzaiten' - Celeste Angus

During my visit to Japan, I spent time in both Tokyo and Kamakura and managed to find a number of shrines and temples dedicated to this popular goddess.


Hase Dera, Kamakura

The popular Hase Dera complex is a Buddhist temple dedicated to the goddess Kannon. Usually thick with tourists, during my visit it seemed the typhoon had kept many away and during my visit I had the place almost to myself. Remarkably, the gardens had been cleared of debris and were looking spectacular despite the still relatively early hour. Of note is that within the grounds was shrine to Benzaiten, found inside a cave.


Entering the cave was really quite a mystical experience. Statues of the goddess were carved into the rock walls in what could only be an act of complete reverence and devotion. I felt in the presence of something that rivaled the finest cathedrals in Europe and as the water dripped and echoed around me I felt a kind of spiritual peace. There were several other caves connected by narrow passageways, one that allowed visitors to purchase a small statue and place it with hundreds of others and make a wish or request of the goddess.




Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine, Kamakura

Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine is located about a 20 minute walk out of the centre of Kamakura. At the top of a fairly steep incline, a torii gate appears against a rock wall with a passage way leading through. It was like something out of Ghibli’s Sprited Away. Apparently the shrine is on the site of what was once a secret village that was surrounded by rock walls on one side and thick forest on the other. Walking through the passage way, with the wind making the sound of ghosts calling you forward, it was like being transported to another world. The shrine itself was interesting, but the major draw card for tourists was the cave where you were able to wash you money to increase your wealth. This shrine actually has images of Ugajin, the snake-bodied kami mentioned earlier.




Enoshima Island, Kanagawa

Enoshima, an island just off the coast of Kamakura, connected by a bridge, has long been a pilgrimage site. This was depicted in the ukiyoe print below by famous ukiyo-e artist, Utagawa Hiroshige.

'Pilgrimage of Female Entertainers to Enoshima to Pay Homage to Benzaiten' - Utagawa Hiroshige.

The island has an extensive shrine complex and there are dragons were everywhere. From the statues that guard the pedestrian bridge over the island, to shrine guardians and elaborate dragon-styled fountains. There are a series of caves on the ocean side of the island, but unfortunately during my visit they were closed due to damage caused by the typhoon and the still wild seas crashing in to them. A reason to return for sure.

 


 


Mount Takao, Tokyo

Mount Takao is itself a remarkable place with a long history that connects it to the Tengu which I have written about in this post. Yakuo-in is the complex related to esoteric Buddhism and contains both Buddhist and Shinto iconography. The prime deity connected to the temple is Izuna Daigongen who was seen in a vision by one of the founding priests on the mountain. It seems that Izuna was called on for protection. Izuna Daigongen contains elements of five different deities, one being the goddess Benzaiten, who at the time was viewed not only as the goddess of water and music, but also of victory in battle. However, it is also home to a small but remarkable Benzaiten Shrine, once again found within a cave. The entrance to the cave is up a steep flight of stairs and pilgrims need to bend over and scramble all the way down a path to an altar to the goddess, deep within the mountain. Water dripping on either side produce an eerily magical effect and you can sense the presence of the goddess.

 
 

Ueno Park, Tokyo

Within the fantastic Ueno Park in Tokyo lies the busy Shinobazu-no-ike Bentendo, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten. The temple is located on an island in the middle of Shinobazu pond within Ueno Park. It is accessed by walking over a bridge that looks out over a vast collection of lily pads and is lined with food vendors. At the temple visitors can choose an omikuji, or fortune, and find out what their luck looks like. Omikuji that are not good can be tied to the wires and another purchased. Symbolically I love the idea that we can respect fate but that we are not bound by it. With proper diligence we can avoid poor ‘luck’ and create a better reality for ourselves.



Bibliography and Resources

Benzaiten - (onmarkproductions)
The Five-headed dragon of Enoshima the Benzaiten goddess
The Legend of Enoshima (Donny Kimball)
Benzaiten and the Fox (Donny Kimball)
Benzaiten (Ancient Origns)

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