Nobody can really explain their origin, but it looks as if Japan's seven lucky gods have been given permanent residence upon these shores.
Art historian Patricia Graham says in her book Faith and Power in Japanese Buddhist Art:
Twentieth-century sources credit the priest Tenkai, Ieyasu’s advisor, with concocting the grouping for the edification of the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu. These sources explain that Tenkai identified the individual gods with seven virtues (longevity, fortune, popularity, candor, amiability, dignity, magnanimity) that kings impart to their subjects if they follow the teachings of the Sutra of the Benevolent Kings (Ninnō-kyō). However, Tenkai’s known writings and Rinnōji records [where Tenkai was active] make no mention of the Seven Gods.
Other scholars suggest that the numerical grouping of seven auspicious deities may have been conceived earlier, during the late Muromachi period, as an adaptation of a Chinese literati painting theme showing an assembly of seven virtuous and illustrious recluses known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. By Tenkai's day, most of the deities in the group had become associated with specific virtues, but representations of them together probably did not take place until well after his death in 1643.
Nowadays you see the gods everywhere in Japan, and so-called seven lucky gods pilgrimages (shichifukujin meguri) are popular especially during New Year. Japan's fortuitous collection is based on Chinese deities, with the exception of Ebisu, who's homegrown:
Fukurokuju, god of happiness, wealth and longevity
Jurōjin, god of longevity
Daikokuten, god of wealth, commerce and trade
Benzaiten, goddess of knowledge, music, literature and beauty
Hotei, the jolly god of happiness and good health
Bishamonten, god of warriors
Ebisu, god of fishermen and merchants
My favourite has always been Hotei (布袋), god of magnanimity, happiness and contentment; guardian of children; and patron of bartenders. Is that a great job description or what? He's based on a semi-legendary itinerant Chinese monk called Budai, who lived in China during the Later Liang Dynasty (907–923) and was renowned for his good nature.
|Hotei statue in front of a restaurant in Bunkyō-ku|
He's always portrayed with a conspicuous potbelly, a round face and a huge smile. It's believed that rubbing his generous tummy will bring good luck.
He carries a cloth bag (his name 布袋 literally means nunobukuro or cloth bag) that never empties and contains all the supplies necessary for himself as well as his followers. He also holds a Chinese fan called an ōgi (扇). Apparently, centuries ago, aristocracy used this kind of fan to indicate to vassals that their requests would be granted.
|Hotei and his bag that never empties. You often see mice with Hotei.|
Mice = plenty of rice in the storeroom = contentment.
I have hundreds of photos of Hotei – not quite as many as my Sky Tree photos, but almost. I'll highlight four Hotei temples in or near Tokyo:
Jyōshin-ji (浄心寺) in Mukōgaoka, Bunkyō-ku, is characterized by a brightly painted Hotei that grins cheerfully next to Hongō-dori. The temple itself has a beautiful graveyard under cherry trees; it's on my list of cherry blossom spots for next year.
|The painted Hotei statue in front of Jyōshin-ji|
|Jyōshin-ji has beautiful cherry trees.|
|Dragon on Jyōshin-ji's incense burner|
Hashiba Fudōson (橋場不動尊) is a small temple in Taitō that's dedicated to the fierce wisdom king Fudō Myōō, but it also enshrines Hotei. I visited it as part of the Asakusa seven lucky gods pilgrimage earlier this year, and it was fitting that Hashiba was the only temple that offered pilgrims free sake. Remember Hotei's job description?
|Ema at Hashiba Fudōson|
Ryōkan-ji Hoteison (良観寺布袋尊) in Shibamata is a temple that's worth a visit – not only for the seven lucky gods, but also for the rows of Jizō statues as well as the beautiful higanbana in its graveyard in early autumn. Shibamata is more famous for an old temple called Shibamata Taishakuten (柴又帝釈天), but you might as well pop into Ryōkan-ji, too. The two temples aren't far apart.
|Hotei statue at Ryōkan-ji|
|The very definition of generous ...|
|The seven lucky gods at Ryōkan-ji|
|Close-up of Hotei|
|Jizō statutes at Ryōkan-ji|
|Higanbana in Ryōkan-ji's graveyard|
Kinpōzan Jōchi-ji (金宝山浄智寺) in Kita-Kamakura has a Hotei statue that stands in his own cave. I wrote about this temple in detail in this post.
|The entrance to Jōchi-ji|
|Rubbing Hotei's belly for good luck|
|I wish I knew what he was pointing at. The road to happiness?|
|Visitors also rub his finger and ears for good luck,|