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Seven Guardians of Fortune, by Kevin Short
Special to The Daily Yomiuri 2003

Representations of Japan's famous Shichi-fukujin, or Seven Lucky Gods, are among the most common souvenirs sold at tourist shops catering to foreign visitors. The seven figures are sometimes sold separately, or sometimes as a set, with the Lucky Gods arranged in a wooden takara-bune or "treasure boat." 

In Japan, these deities are believed to bring happiness and good fortune. Just praying to the gods at a shrine or temple, or placing their images in a home or office, is considered  auspicious. The best way to truly experience the full benefits of their spiritual power, however, is to undertake a walking  pilgrimage

Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimages are found all over Japan, and are generally undertaken at the beginning of the year. Many pilgrimages are only available for the first few days of the New Year, but others remain open until Setsubun on Feb. 3. 

The Tokai-Shichifukujin, located in southern Tokyo, is a fun and easy pilgrimage. Like most pilgrimages of this type, the course consists of seven shrines and temples, each dedicated to one of the Lucky Gods. Pilgrims walk the course from end to end, documenting their journey with ink stamps or little clay dolls. 

The composition of the Seven Lucky Gods is very typical of  Japanese folk beliefs, which combine elements from various religious traditions in a unique and creative fashion. Of the seven deities, only Ebisu is a full-fledged Japanese kami deity straight out of Shinto mythology. Daikokuten, Bishamonten and Benzaiten originated in India, and were brought to Japan as part of the Buddhist pantheon, while Hotei, Fukurokuju and Jurojin can trace their ancestry to China. 

The concept of the Lucky Gods is thought to have originated among the merchants of Osaka and Kyoto during the 15th and 16th or 17th centuries. To begin with, two deities, Ebisu and Daikoku, were drafted from their duties in rural fishing and farming hamlets to serve as gods of fortune in the big city commercial districts. 

Ebisu was, and still is, first and foremost a special patron deity of coastal fishermen, and is thus usually depicted holding a fishing pole and carrying a sea bream under one arm. 

As told in the Kojiki, Japan's oldest collection of myths, the god Izanagi and goddess Izanami married and began to give birth to the Japanese islands. On their first attempt, however, the goddess spoke first, and they gave birth to a child that looked like a leech. Realizing that the god should have spoken first, they then set the child adrift on a cradle of reeds and began anew. Throughout Japan are legends in which the leech child drifts ashore at a small fishing hamlet, where he brings good luck to the local fishermen and is enshrined as the god Ebisu.

Because Daikoku is so often depicted alongside Ebisu, many people mistakenly think that Daikoku also is an original Japanese kami. This deity, however, actually started off as a folk god in ancient India. As was often the case with popular folk deities, he was later adopted into the Buddhist pantheon as a  fierce guardian spirit, charged with ridding the land of ferocious demons. From there he traveled along the Silk Road to China, where he became a special patron of the temple kitchens.

In Japan as well, Daikoku assumed these kitchen duties. Later, however, his image was merged with that of Okuni-nushi, an important Shinto kami (the characters for Okuni, or "big-country," can also be read as Daikoku, which literally means "big black"), and his spiritual portfolio was expanded to include watching over farming villages. Even today he is widely worshiped in agricultural areas as a bringer of rich harvests.

In the process of adapting to Japanese folk cosmology, Daikoku changed from a scowling warrior to a jolly, laid-back sage. He is invariably depicted standing on two bales of rice, with a small treasure hammer in his right hand and a treasure sack slung over the opposite shoulder.

When Daikoku and Ebisu are worshiped together they create a spiritual synergy that far exceeds the power of either working alone. This spiritual synergy principle is thought to be the basis for the later drafting of additional deities into the group, eventually forming a sort of X-men type fighting force with incredible power to bring fortune and banish evil and bad luck (you can see this same principle displayed in popular Japanese children's TV shows, where a group of individual rangers combine into a single biotron capable of defeating the most evil creatures).

Benzaiten is also an ancient Indian deity, originally an essential spirit of flowing water. The only goddess in the group, Benzaiten was adopted into Buddhism and went on to become a patron deity of music and the performing arts, as well as a guardian spirit of wells and ponds.

Here in Japan her image was merged with that of an existing water goddess, and even today she is by far and away the most popular guardian spirit of sacred irrigation ponds that hold the water for rice paddies. In Seven Lucky Gods settings, Benzaiten is depicted seated, holding a traditional Japanese stringed instrument called a biwa.

Bishamon is another former Indian folk deity converted into a champion of the Buddhist faith. He is the leader of the Shitenno, a group of four guardian kings that protect sacred mountains, temples and even cities. He is always charged with guarding the northern gate, and is especially adept at turning back evil spirits that cause poverty and ill luck.

The figure of Hotei is based on a historic Chinese monk of  the Zen sect. With his huge stomach and imperturbable smile, Hotei is like an year-round Santa Claus. Traveling around the countryside, he distributes food and other vital goods to the poor and needy, taking gifts from his huge sack, which is said to be bottomless and to never go empty.

Fukurokuju and Jurojin are both derived from Sennin -- Chinese Taoist mountain sages that have mastered the mysteries of the universe. Considered to be incarnations of stars, they hold the secrets of continuing youth and long life. Fukurokuju is depicted with a long head, and Jurojin with a deer, another  symbol of longevity.

Shichifukujin pilgrimages, with all seven deities, were in place in the big cities by the start of the 19th century and remain immensely popular today. The Tokai pilgrimage is laid out along a commercial shopping street that follows the course of the historic Tokaido, a trunk highway connecting Tokyo with Kyoto and Osaka. The entire course can be walked in two to three hours.

There are two systems for documenting your pilgrimage. One is a rectangular stamping sheet, called a kinen-shikishi, made of very stiff cardboard. You buy this at your first destination (1,000 yen), then hand it to the office for stamping at each successive stop (free). When completed, the sheet will show seven red and black ink stamps.

The other system makes use of a small wooden treasure boat and a set of seven tiny painted clay dolls. At each stop you hand the boat over for stamping, and receive one of the dolls. There is even a wooden mast and a paper sail that can be attached. At home, you assemble the mast and sail, and glue the dolls on top of their respective stamps. The boat costs 900 yen to begin with, and each individual doll will set you back 300 yen. You can probably buy a better set in a souvenir shop for less, but having made the pilgrimage yourself gives the piece a very special meaning. <Copyright 2003 The Yomiuri Shimbun>

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