Most people think Asakusa in Tokyo’s east is a tourist trap. Hordes of travellers – an estimated 30 million every year – visit to ogle Senso-ji, the city’s oldest temple, dating back to 645. Here, one can experience a piece of traditional Japan, and the Buddhist complex, with its exquisite architecture and painted details, is a sight to behold.
However, away from the crowds who typically browse Nakamise-dori, the pedestrian street leading up to the temple that’s lined with stalls selling traditional sweets and kitschy souvenirs, is a truly charming neighbourhood made up of small lanes dotted with artisanal and multi-generational family-run shops. There is no need for a supermarket selling mass-produced goods, as everything can be bought at stores specialising in just one type of product.
In the Edo period (1603 to 1868) the neighbourhood was popular with commoners and merchants. At the time Japan was enjoying a period of political stability and, thanks largely to this peaceful climate, cultural endeavours flourished. In opposition to the elegant and refined tastes of upper-class Tokyo, the downtown area developed a bawdy reputation. Ironically, various aspects of Japanese culture that are lauded now – woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, even tattoos – were, during the time, produced by the commoners for the commoners.
The locals who live here now have a fierce parochial pride and a brash sense of humour. The spirit of the community is evident during the many matsuri (festivals) that take place during the year. The most incredible of these are the Sanja Festival, which takes place on the third weekend each May and resembles one big street party, and the Sumida River Fireworks Festival in July.
Increasingly, the area has become a hotbed for members of the creative class, who find the rent in trendy west Tokyo areas prohibitively expensive. Their arrival has helped create a unique neighbourhood, where old-school craftsmen and new-wave designers exist side by side.
For visitors, there are a number of hotels in Asakusa, but Taito Ryokan – a small Japanese inn, built in 1950 – is a good choice. For Tokyo, it’s very cheap (about US$25 per person), with atmospheric tatami-style (straw mat) rooms and a friendly owner who makes the whole experience more like a homestay.
Asakusa has a plethora of artisan food stores – some sell only one kind of dried fish, for example, while others specialise in tofu. Kintaro-ame is a style of classic Japanese sweet and the most famous shop making it is the fifth-generation Kintaro-ame Honten. Long sugary ropes are assembled together, stretched then cut to reveal a pattern – most often a character’s face – within.
Stop for a break at Gallery éf. This Edo-era warehouse, built in 1868, is one of the few buildings that survived the fire-bombings of World War II. The space retains its architectural charm, but now serves as a cultural hub cafe, bar and gallery – with a cosmopolitan clientele. Exhibitions range from Yutaka Kamimura’s photography of cats and dogs living in the Fukushima nuclear evacuation zone to NYC shooter Paule Saviano’s burlesque images.
While Senso-ji is the most famous temple in the area, you can find numerous shrines nestled inconspicuously between buildings. The small Yoshiwara Benzaiten Shrine is surrounded by cherry blossoms that bloom gloriously during spring. Although legal reforms saw courtesans disappear from Tokyo life during the mid-50s, they used to come here, once part of the city’s biggest red-light district, to pray for protection.
One of the most atmospheric sentos (public baths) in Tokyo is Onsen Jakotsu-yu, nestled in Asakusa’s laneways. Sentos were common in the region post-war, as many houses did not have their own bathrooms, but locals still attend them – yes, in their birthday suits – for the community atmosphere and sense of ritual. The water that flows in Jakotsu-yu comes from deep in the ground and is rich in minerals, leaving skin smooth and soft. This is also one of the few bathhouses in Japan where people with tattoos can bathe.
One recent transplant to the district is yukata (kimono) maker Rumi Shibasaki, who works out of her atelier, Rumix Design Studio. She makes cotton kimonos infused with a rock ’n’ roll sensibility – the dramatic motifs include images referencing all aspects of pop culture from Alfred Hitchcock films to novels by Yukio Mishima. She does, however, use traditional dyeing methods that utilise meticulously detailed, hand-cut stencils. Each yukata is stitched to order, so you can go in, get measured up and have a kimono made especially for you.
What to wear with your Rumix yukata? The answer is footwear from Tsujiya Honten, a traditional footwear store that makes geta, zori and setta, which are similar in shape to flip-flops but have the sturdiness of clogs or sandals. Each pair is custom-made by an in-house creator who fits them to your foot. They are beautiful, comfortable and, as an added bonus, go really well with jeans. A visit to the store is always great for people watching, as customers, from elegant gentlemen in their finest kimonos to first-time fashionistas, wait to have their sandals tailored to them.
The first time I went to Miyoshi, a small restaurant in the heart of Asakusa, it was by invitation of a local tattoo artist who goes there every second day to eat. It has unassuming interiors and a low-key atmosphere, but excellent fugu. While the taste of this famous pufferfish (poisonous if prepared incorrectly) is subtle, the presentation – delicate slices fanned out on a plate – and the texture of the sashimi is what makes fugu such a speciality in Japanese cuisine.
One of the best nightspots in Asakusa is Oiwake. The food served is typical of an izakaya – drink-friendly yakitori (meat grilled on skewers), edamame (soybeans still in their pods), house-made tofu and the like – and is downed with plenty of beer and sake. The real attraction here is the entertainment. At this bar young musicians play folk songs from north Japan with shamisens, a lute-like instrument that is strummed vigorously to produce a melancholic sound. The playing is so fervent and energetic it has been likened to that of Jimi Hendrix. Afterwards, when they’ve finished their set, the musos mingle with the crowd. That’s just the kind of place Asakusa is.
Manami Okazaki’s latest book, Toy Tokyo, features the works of more than 20 photographers who used film and non-conventional cameras to capture unique images of Japan.