Asakusa is one of the oldest parts of Tokyo and even now is a very popular place with tourists, for its Kyotoesque collection of ‘old-school’ shops and winding avenues. Living near to the Tsuba-Express line, I can now get here in just 20-odd minutes, so, after many years of not visiting, I decided I really had to go again.
The most famous site in Asakusa is Sensoji temple, especially it’s huge Kaminarimon Gate and five storied pagoda, which has stood there in various forms for centuries. Like most Japanese temples, being mainly made from wood it has periodically succumbed to fire and other disasters, which of course gives people the chance to renew the place and ‘freshen it up’. Sadly, Allied air raids were responsible in this case, and the main temple, originally dating back to as far as 645, was rebuilt in 1953, with the impressive, steel and concrete-reinforced pagoda in 1973*. Of course, all these facts and figures are something you always get told about temples, their main value in my view being as places to wander around and soak up the atmosphere, something greatly helped by participating; lighting some incense and throwing a coin in the box. In some mysterious way this really opens them up to me so that I never get bored of them, or ‘templed out’, as they say. Hence one of my girlfriend’s nicknames for me, ‘temple-chan’! It’s always good to know something about the place, though.
Like any great religious site, Sensoji is more than just the temple, but the life it inspired through festivals, pilgrimages and so on, that gave the whole area it’s character. The fact it and the surrounding area retained something of their atmosphere is quite unique to the constantly busy Tokyo. Here is a much more casual atmosphere, something like what you can find in the temple-dotted cities of Kamakura or Kyoto. Small stalls near the temple, known as the Nakamise arcade, sell freshly-baked sembei (rice-crackers), tai-yaki (fish-shaped cakes) and various other goodies. Traditional fans, scarves, models of Samuri swords and the like are on display- you can actually feel like you are in Japan in the traditional sense- hence the large crowds of tourists from the US, Europe, Asia coming for a taste of Japan.
To greet them are the friendly Japanese locals. Old men help people to light incense and teach them the Buddhist way of praying (in Japan, at any rate), kids from the local elementary school come to interview visitors and try out their English, asking ‘what country are you from?’ and ‘what Japanese food do you like?’, giving origami presents as thanks.
Aside from this there are rows of inviting small restaurants, again in the old style, all over the area. Though now replaced by Shinjuku, Asakusa used to be a notorious red-light district called “Yoshiwara”, where the conditions were sometimes so bad that arson was the girls only hope of revenge*. To a limited extent it still is (though hopefully the conditions are no-where near as bad now), and is apparently still home to an older generation of ‘ladies of the night’. What mostly remains, though, are all the restaurants and bars associated with this world of entertainment, celebrated in many kabuki plays. Along the path here, I saw a blast from the past- an old war veteran, probably in his 80’s painting pictures of geisha girls and war-time airplanes. People stopped to gasp with sympathy, at someone recreating a world almost as distant for them as for me, by someone for whom such things still have a vital familiarity.
At night, the winding streets, lit only by the shops’ lanterns, have an especially old-world atmosphere, quite different from the high buildings decked with neon that are so common in Tokyo (you have those to, of course, but perhaps not so many, a sign of neglect or of cultural preservation, depending on who you are and how you look at it.) There are also open-air markets and interesting little details dotted around, like large old houses (often now used as ryokan, (usually) expensive, Japanese-style hotels) and a beautiful Japanese-style garden.
Whilst I was there for lunch, I went to one of the small, cosy restaurants, thinking of ordering a ‘cream anmitsu’- sweet red bean paste with balls of mochi and some fruits, with a scoop of ice-cream, all covered by a delicious syrup made from black, molasses-like sugar. But sitting there, smelling the sweet, vinegared-rice, I suddenly got a strange craving for sushi, something I’ve never really had in the same way. I ordered a set and was constantly struck by how good and satisfying it was, even though I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as good sushi as I’ve had by Tsukiji fish market, or by the sea. Whether it was all because I was so hungry after my wanderings, or something in the town’s atmosphere made the whole delicate culture of sushi more fun and relevant to me, I’ll never know, but I really enjoyed it!
So, if you’re ever in Tokyo and feel exhausted by the hurly and burly of the crowds senselessly rushing from one station to the next, mellow out in Asakusa for a bit with a cup of ma-cha green tea and a senbei or two. You won’t regret it!
* Historical information with thanks to the Tokyo Essentials Tokyo Tourist Guide