Neon canyons, jaw-dropping fashion, futuristic skyscrapers, the electric pulse of one of the world’s largest cities -- that’s what draws many travelers here. Unfortunately, they’re all things I detest. Japan’s ultramodern cities aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and living in Osaka some years ago taught me they weren’t mine.
Instead, on a three-day visit last autumn, my husband, Kevin, and I went in search of an older, earthier Tokyo and found it in a cheerfully unfashionable neighborhood called Asakusa, in the city’s northeast.
Asakusa has been devastated by fires, leveled by earthquakes and pounded by World War II bombs, but after each catastrophe, it was rebuilt. We found its real heritage -- its spirit -- thriving.
Asakusa sprang up as part of the “Low Town” in Edo (Tokyo’s name in feudal times, from 1603 to 1868). Unlike the airy hills where samurai aristocrats lived, Low Town was the commoners’ quarter -- poor, damp and crowded. Asakusa was home to the merchants and craftsmen who served the shogun, and it grew into a busy commercial center.
It all began with the temple of Kannon, so that’s where Kevin and I went first.
According to legend, in 628 two brothers were fishing in the nearby Sumida River when they hauled up a gold statue in their nets. It was an image of Kannon, a revered Buddhist figure who hears the cries of the suffering. The local lord enshrined the image in his home, and before the city of Tokyo even existed, Kannon was drawing throngs of worshipers.
Today, as in the past, the Kannon Temple is Asakusa’s bustling heart. We entered through Kaminari-mon, the massive wooden Thunder Gate, under a red lantern weighing nearly a ton. At the end of a long arcade, the main hall’s tile roof soars skyward.
Inside, the thickly gilded altar is supposed to contain the statue found centuries ago, but its doors are always shut, so the truth is anybody’s guess. What’s indisputable is the people’s devotion. As we watched, a kindly old monk blessed a small girl in a brilliant red kimono, accompanied by her family. Silver spangles shimmered in her hair when she bowed to offer incense.
Outside in the temple courtyard, Tokyo’s skyscrapers felt agreeably remote. Worshipers bathed their faces in purifying incense smoke, and neighborhood housewives stopped to offer coins on their way home from grocery shopping. One elderly woman wandered about with a nonchalant calico cat perched on her shoulder.
Amulet shops did a brisk business selling prayers stitched in brocade pouches, and a rattling sound filled the air as visitors told their fortunes by shaking numbered sticks out of a metal cylinder. I considered trying it but concluded I didn’t really want to know what the future held.
Because Kannon is the deity of compassion, the temple has long offered welfare programs to the neighborhood. It opened a hospital in 1910, which is supported by temple revenues, and it operates a kindergarten.
As we sat with pensioners feeding cracked corn to the pigeons, a class of 4-year-olds on their morning walk trooped by, irresistibly cute in matching yellow smocks.
Shopping and other pleasures
We were hardly the first foreigners attracted to the area. In 1880, the English missionary Isabella Bird described Asakusa in her book “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan”:
“Just there, plenty of Tokyo life is to be seen, for near a shrine of popular pilgrimage there are always numerous places of amusement, innocent and vicious, and the vicinity of this temple is full of restaurants, teahouses, minor theaters and the resorts of dancing and singing girls.”
Edo became Japan’s capital in 1590, and Asakusa boomed when the city’s “pleasure quarter” was relocated nearby in 1657 and visitors began stopping off here. Around the temple, a new entertainment district sprang up, along with shops to cater to pilgrims and revelers alike. Present-day Nakamise-dori, the covered arcade leading to the temple, jumbles everything Japanese, from the sublime to the tacky. The shop Sukeroku sells exquisitely detailed handmade miniatures of Edo-era characters: A dancer the size of my thumbnail cost $54.
A few doors down, rubber Godzillas went for $90, and a man in traditional indigo-dyed work clothes sat splitting kombu seaweed by hand. There are dealers in geisha wigs, oiled-paper umbrellas and kabuki theater makeup, but also mom-and-pop shoe and grocery stores. Kevin and I spent a happy couple of hours munching rice crackers, tripping over windup hamsters and trying on wooden geta sandals.
We especially enjoyed Adachiya, a supplier of traditional clothing for Shinto festivals. Its handsome cotton jackets come in sizes for toddlers through sumo wrestlers, and the block-printed headbands look like a fad just waiting to happen. The rice-straw sandals worn for processions horrified me. They were so unbearably rough I couldn’t imagine walking three minutes in them, let alone three miles.
For one item on our shopping list we needed local advice. The Asakusa Tourist Information Center, across from the arcade’s entrance, is piled high with brochures on the area’s sights, and it’s staffed by English-speaking volunteers from the neighborhood. Hiroshi Sato, a retired university professor, was delighted to hear that my husband loves cooking Japanese food and told us exactly where to find the obscure ingredient Kevin had been searching for.
Shichimi is a peppery spice mixture, a blend of chili flakes, sesame and herbs, used on noodles and stews. Any Japanese supermarket stocks ready-made jars of it, but Kevin had learned that only a handful of traditional shichimi shops still prepare custom blends. Sato directed us to the only one in Tokyo, a few blocks from the temple.
Though the shop was all modern glass and stainless steel, there was something timeless in the way saleswomen carefully measured out spices, stirred them in a wooden bowl, then held up the blend to be sniffed and approved by the customer before pouring it into a bamboo canister or tiny bag. Using sign language and smiles, Kevin commissioned an extra-pungent mix. It scented his suitcase for days.
We were disappointed to find the Shitamachi Museum, which portrays traditional life in Low Town, closed for remodeling. But a smaller and lessknown museum that Sato had recommended fascinated us.
Tucked away in a shopping street, the Edo Shitamachi Traditional Crafts Museum showcases the work of master artisans who still live in Asakusa’s back streets. During the Edo period, the shoguns commanded masters of every craft to relocate from other cities to the capital, and many of these traditions continue here.
Asakusa craftsmen -- few masters are women -- dye silk, weave braid for kimono sashes, paint kites, carve wooden molds for traditional sweets, and make paper lanterns, copper kettles and knives too gorgeous to use. A neighborhood specialty is hagoita, elaborate wooden paddles decorated with three-dimensional figures in brocade costumes. The Kannon Temple even holds an annual festival honoring hagoita.
Icons, modern and ancient
Asakusa’s side streets are a patchwork of wholesalers’ shops. To the west of the temple, Kappabashi is lined with restaurant suppliers -- one shop bristled with chopsticks. Another sold only waiters’ order pads. The most startling, though, were the plastic-food dealers. Foreigners in Japan make a beeline for these replica dishes in restaurant windows, which let you order simply by pointing. The biggest of the shops was a surreal mishmash of lobsters, ice cream sundaes, sushi and pizza slices, piled high and wrapped in plastic. The “dishes” were rather pricey for an impulse buy -- a plain bowl of noodles went for more than $50 -- but we also spotted $8 sushi fridge magnets.
Farther south we wandered through another quintessentially Japanese district. The streets around Tawaramachi subway station specialize in Buddhist home altars, elegant cabinets of dark lacquered wood lined in gold and lavishly carved with filigree birds and flowers. Hushed showrooms glittered with gilded Buddha images, brocade hangings, crystal prayer beads and brass vessels for offerings.
In the evening, as the temple’s gates closed and the shops were shuttered, we watched a different Asakusa emerge.
A hundred years ago, Asakusa was Tokyo’s prime entertainment district, and in 1903 Japan’s first movie theater, Electricity Hall, opened here. A few forlorn traces of this era remain, like Hanayashiki, a venerable amusement park tucked in the curve of a side street. The paint has spent decades fading, and the rides are small and tame, but the shrieking kids on the pirate ship didn’t care. Down the street, a modern kabuki theater, its facade decorated with photos of actors in costume, was attempting to recapture past glory.
Though there are a handful of well-known restaurants, modern Asakusa doesn’t have much night life. Neighborhood residents hurried home from work past a palm reader at a sidewalk table, and a handful of homeless people -- no longer unknown in Japan -- set up their cardboard shelters for the night. Vendors sold chestnuts and ramen from pushcarts. We saw this kind of street life nowhere else in Tokyo.
Our last night in Tokyo was an adventure. The budget inn where we had stayed was full, so we finally decided to investigate Japan’s most peculiar lodging option: a capsule hotel. Located near train stations, these hotels, intended for commuters who have missed the last train home, rent sleeping space in individual plastic “capsules.”
We stowed our bags on a shelf, bought tickets from a vending machine and followed the clerk upstairs. The hallway of the women’s floor was lined with lockers, and I slipped into a cotton bathrobe, then headed off for a steamy soak alone in the big Japanese-style bath. When I entered my room, lights glowed through the drawn bamboo curtains of several of its 16 capsules, but the only sound was the hum of the heater and the occasional rustle of newspaper pages.
It was too quiet. I kept waking up, watching the blue digits change on the built-in alarm clock, waiting for the noisy revelers to come whooping in. They never did.
The capsule itself was a comfy masterpiece of miniaturization: With a shelf, reading lamp and tiny TV molded into its plastic curves, it reminded me of a high-tech bathtub.
I finally gave up trying to sleep at 6:30 a.m. and was shocked when I opened the curtain to discover that most of the capsules were occupied. I hadn’t seen another human being since getting off the elevator.
After our night in outer space, it was a relief to splash down in Asakusa’s crowded, funky streets. We were due to leave Tokyo on a late-morning train, so we stored our luggage at Asakusa station, then returned to the Kannon Temple for one last stroll.
As I peered over the shoulders of pilgrims shaking the fortunetelling sticks, I noticed for the first time that the paper fortunes included a few lines of English.
It was time. I dropped my 100-yen coin in the slot, picked up the heavy box and shook hard. For the longest time, nothing happened. Then a teenage girl showed me how to tilt it, and at last a stick popped out -- No. 2. Pulling the slip from its numbered drawer, I read: “Better Fortune. Do your best and ask for help of others. You don’t have to worry; open your eyes and look into the future.”
Fitting words for us -- and Asakusa.
Kristin Johannsen, a freelance writer in Berea, Ky., lived in Japan for three years.
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At ease in Asakusa
From LAX, Singapore, All Nippon, JAL, Thai, Northwest, United and Korean offer nonstop flights to Tokyo. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $720.
Addresses in Japan are akin to post office box numbers: They don’t specify a building’s physical location. To find a hotel or restaurant, head for the Asakusa Tourist Information Center and pick up a free English map, which lists many of them. The staff is happy to give directions.
To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 81 (country code for Japan) and the local number. If dialing within Japan, add a 0 before the city code.
WHERE TO STAY:
Kikuya Ryokan, 2-18-9 Nishi-Asakusa, 3-3841-4051, fax 3-3841-6404, has spare Japanese-style double rooms with private bath for $70.
Capsule Hotel Riverside, 2-20-4 Kaminarimi, 3-3844-1155, near Asakusa station, rents capsules on separate men’s and women’s floors for $24.
Asakusa View Hotel, 3-17-1 Nishi-Asakusa; 3-3847-1111, fax 3-3842-2117, www.viewhotels.co.jp/asakusa/english. The area’s poshest lodgings, with Western-style double rooms from $230.
WHERE TO EAT:
Daikokuya, 3-3844-1111. Tempura, an Asakusa specialty, with a variety of different sakes. Tempura dishes are $12 and up.
The temple area has scores of tiny lunch restaurants. We had miso ramen (noodles and pork slices in miso broth) for $4.50 at Toriya (no phone) in the Shin-Nakamise Arcade.
Inexpensive restaurants line the top floor of Matsuya department store, next to Asakusa station. A set meal with maguro tuna sushi was $10.
TO LEARN MORE:
Japan National Tourist Organization, 515 S. Figueroa St., Suite 1470, Los Angeles, CA 90071; (213) 623-1952, fax (213) 623-6301, www.jnto.go.jp.
Asakusa Tourist Information Center, 3-3842-5566. The office, across from the main gate of the Kannon Temple, is staffed by English speakers and is open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
-- Kristin Johannsen