Money Laundering for Fame and Fortune in Japan

07/19/2017 02:03 am ET
Money laundering Japan style.
Photo by Gail Nakada
Money laundering Japan style.

At an ancient Kamakura temple, they take money laundering to literal extremes.

For centuries, believers have trekked up a steep hill, traversed a dark, rough tunnel, and emerged into a grotto crowned by a natural cave with a clear, freshwater spring. Entering the cave, they pray– after offering a donation to smooth the way of course -- before crouching over the sacred waters flowing inside to wash their money in small straw baskets.

For centuries, believers have come to the shrine  hoping the sacred water will increase their fortunes.
Photo by Gail Nakada
For centuries, believers have come to the shrine hoping the sacred water will increase their fortunes.

Zenni Arai Benten Shinto Shrine is famous throughout Japan for its alleged power to help people increase their wealth – as long as they’re willing to part with a little of it as a donation. Presiding over this celestial Ponzi scheme is the Goddess Benzaiten (also called Benten). She is one of the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan (read more about them here, Huff Post), Goddess of art, language, music and all that flows. Because of the symbolic ‘flow’ of creativity, her shrines always have a water feature on the grounds. Zenni Arai means ‘to wash coins’.

This shrine is one of Kamakura’s best-known attractions along with the giant Bronze Daibutsu Buddha, Hachimangu Temple, and the bamboo forest at Hokoku Ji Temple.

While in Kamakura, don’t miss your chance to see the giant Daibutsu Buddha. Zenni Arai Benten and the Daibutsu are, however,
Photo by Gail Nakada
While in Kamakura, don’t miss your chance to see the giant Daibutsu Buddha. Zenni Arai Benten and the Daibutsu are, however, on opposite sides of town.

Long ago Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo put Kamakura on the map by making it his military capitol. As the story goes, the Goddess appeared to him in a dream with instructions to build the shrine/temple and up it went in 1185. I say shrine/temple because, though Benten is a Buddhist deity by way of India, she is claimed by Shinto as well. Up until the Meiji Reformation, Shinto and Buddhism enjoyed an easy give and take of deities and doctrine.

Entrance to the holy grotto is through a rough, stone tunnel.
Photo by Gail Nakada
Entrance to the holy grotto is through a rough, stone tunnel.

The legend of the money washing didn’t spring up until the following Shogunate when the ruling family began to visit the shrine to purify their body and spirit and, incidentally, their money. As the legend of the spring trickled down to the commoners, they opted to skip right to the money part of the story. There are actually few ‘miracle stories’ of people getting rich following a visit to the shrine. If you ask the priests, they say you can’t expect a return on that sort of shallow investment. Pilgrims need to purify their heart and spirit as well.

Here’s what to do. Oh, and I am not saying any of this will have a heavenly effect on your finances. Are we clear? This is for your cultural enrichment. And bring a handkerchief!

The Shrine’s HQ for baskets, candles, incense, and charms is in the center of the grotto.
Photo by Gail Nakada
The Shrine’s HQ for baskets, candles, incense, and charms is in the center of the grotto.

The first stop after emerging from the tunnel is the shrine ‘office’ in the center of the grotto. Hand the priest a donation of 100 yen and pick up a basket loaded with a candle and little bundle of incense. There are several small shrines around the grotto but the candle and the incense are for the altars flanking the entrance to the cave. Light your candle and incense and place them in the appropriate places. Bow, and say a short prayer of thanks.

Here’s what you get for your 100 yen.
Photo by Gail Nakada
Here’s what you get for your 100 yen.

Benten’s altar is inside the cave on the right. Before the money washing ritual, visitors stop here to pray, offer a donation, and ask the Goddess for her blessing. Remember, you can’t get something for nothing!

The entrance to Benten’s altar. Stop here before proceeding to the spring.
Photo by Gail Nakada
The entrance to Benten’s altar. Stop here before proceeding to the spring.

Only then proceed to the spring. At the stream, put the money in the basket. Take one of the metal scoops and use it to anoint the money over the stream. Rinse it thoroughly while asking Benten’s blessing once again.

Put whatever amount you choose, bills or coins, in the basket.
Photo by Gail Nakada
Put whatever amount you choose, bills or coins, in the basket.

Now, visitors have a bundle of wet money. This is why a handkerchief is necessary! Wrap the money in the handkerchief and put it away. Set the basket with the others on the far wall, it is not a gift to take home.

Leave your used basket in one of the racks. No cheating. Don’t take one of the wet ones to use for your prayer.
Photo by Gail Nakada
Leave your used basket in one of the racks. No cheating. Don’t take one of the wet ones to use for your prayer.

There are several lines of thought on what to do next. Some say you should keep that money in a lucky wallet. Others say spend it as it will bring money back to you at least two-fold. The official line is that you should spend the money for the fortune to return to you. Most people take a middle ground: spend part and keep some aside.

The cave is dimly lit by the natural skylight in the roof. The signs tell visitors what to do with their baskets. Apparently
Photo by Gail Nakada
The cave is dimly lit by the natural skylight in the roof. The signs tell visitors what to do with their baskets. Apparently people need a lot of telling.

To separate you from a little more of your money, the shrine offers an assortment of charms (omamori) and little wallets to put the blessed money in. The gold coin on some of the charms symbolizes the largest denomination of currency in old Japan.

Access: The most direct route is via the JR Yokosuka Line from Shinagawa Station. Get off at Kamakura Station. Cost: 720 yen one way. The journey is 50 minutes.

Depending on where visitors are staying, travelers can also take an express (or limited express which is even faster) toward Yokohama on the Toyoko Line (also called the Fukutoshin Line before Shibuya). At Yokohama Station, exit the Toyoko line and follow the signs for the West Exit and the JR Yokosuka line.

The shrine is about a twenty-minute walk from Kamakura station. Take the West Exit. There is a bustling street directly in front of the station lined with shops. Walk straight ahead on the right side. At a busy intersection, you will see Kinokuniya Supermarket on your right. Keep walking straight ahead through the short tunnel. At the traffic signal beyond the tunnel, turn right. The last part is a huff and puff up the hill. You can’t miss the Torii Gate at the entrance to the grotto tunnel.

At Kamakura Station, visitors can take a taxi and skip the walk. The cost is around 1400 yen one way.

Barrier Free Access: Kamakura has ramps to and from the platforms, so the station presents no problem. If you or someone in your party is in a wheelchair, Zenni Arai Benten Shrine is difficult to navigate. The ground is rocky, the paths in the grotto are uneven. The hillside approach is steep. However, a taxi can drop visitors off at the entrance to the tunnel. The tunnel is steep, dark, and narrow. Caution is advised.

Hours: 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., daily.

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