Surrounded on all sides. Hemmed in and dwarfed by glass-clad towers and blocky office buildings, all of them seemingly monuments to a specific disinterest in any form of architectural creativity. Nestled in the middle of all of this, in a section of Tokyo that seems designed to eradicate any hope within any office worker who might have once entertained a fantasy of leaving the corporate world behind, is a shrine.
Kotohira-gu has been in this place since 1679. At that time, the city was still called Edo, and wouldn’t be renamed to Tokyo for another 189 years, when it became the capital of Japan. It had already come a long way from its origin as a fishing village on an estuary, and it would only be another forty-two years before Edo’s population reached one million.
It has stood there in what is now Toranomon for 342 years. Much has happened. Lots of good, yes, but for a moment, let us consider some of of the bad.
The shrine was there in 1703 for the Genroku earthquake, with an epicenter not far away, and the subsequent tsunami. The wave, along with the earthquake, claimed as many as ten thousand lives. In 1792, the Great Unzen Disaster killed another fifteen thousand.
It was there in 1828 when the Siebold typhoon took more than nineteen thousand.
It was there during the Great Tenpo Famine from 1833 to 1837. And it was there when, in 1896, the Sanriku earthquake generated two tsunami that reached over thirty-eight meters in height and killed more than twenty-two thousand.
It was there in 1923 for the Great Kanto Earthquake, when over a hundred thousand lives were lost.
It was there for the first and second Sino-Japanese Wars, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Second World War, during which the shrine stood as long as it was able until it was destroyed1. It stood, in whole or in part, during the firebombing of Tokyo, when more than a hundred thousand perished, and months later when the atomic bombs fell and took a quarter million. In total, WWII resulted in more than three million Japanese deaths, nearly a third of them civilians.
It was there on March 20, 1995 when, less than 500m away, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin nerve agent in the subway, targeting Kasumigaseki and Nagatacho stations. Fourteen died and more than five thousand were injured.
It was there during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which most readers will have memory of, having happened a scant decade ago. Nearly sixteen thousand died then.
And it is there, today, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The death toll is poised to exceed that of the 2011 event any day now, if it hasn’t already.
Millions of tragic deaths over hundreds of years. Human suffering stretching to the horizon and beyond. But time, of course, continues on, and so does everyone who survives.
Nothing lasts forever, good or bad, and there is something to be said for looking at the things that connect us to the past, to a time long before we were born, and consider the struggle and tragedy that befell so many before us. Struggles and tragedy that were very real, but struggles and tragedy that nonetheless eventually passed.
The way things are can seem unending, the awful pull of eternity lengthening perception in direct proportion to suffering. This is where many of us are today, especially as it hits home that this isn’t over. That it isn’t really even winding down yet—only just changing.
But when you go and stand somewhere like Kotohira-gu, it is grounding. It is peaceful there, and it is beautiful. It is a lovely place to visit, perhaps to pray, and to feel connected to a reality that extends beyond our current circumstances. This, despite the incongruity of its present setting and the desperate facts of the day.
It has been there for more than a dozen generations, and it may remain there for at least that much longer still. Chances are, it will outlast every single person alive today. This is, I would argue, not a morbid resignation to fate, but instead a comforting reminder that, in time, we will emerge from this.
The shrine was rebuilt following the war in 1951 ↩︎