The merchant booths of Nakamise leading up to Senso-ji, Tokyo’s most popular tourist spot.
The largest and oldest temple in Japan is also the most-visited tourist attraction in the city. Here, not only can you appreciate the great statues of the bodhisattva Kannon and his many manifestations, but also walk through the Edo-era mercantile atmosphere.
Notice the noren, an Edo-era banner placed front of shops, a custom still practiced today.
Indeed, unlike the older cities of Kyoto and Nara, Tokyo’s beginnings is tied directly to the Edo. Tokyo is Edo, its former name. Although Edo was actually founded before the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa decided to move the capital from Kyoto brimming of intrigue to Edo’s great Kanto plain, he revolutionized a quiet fishing and castle town into a bustling metropolis of merchants and artisans.
Edo’s early sense of the urbane can be seen on Nakamise, the long straight walkway leading to the Sensoji, the great temple. Dozens of booths selling fish, tiny trinkets, fans, ice cream, tenugui, and what have you.
Thousands of tourists pass by the multifarious booths of Nakamise.
Although the merchants on Nakamise usually sell standard machine-manufactured goods that you could probably order online, or modified slightly to give it a ‘local’ feel, there are still stores that brings you back to Edo’s inventive craftsmanship.
In the alley just behind the Nakamise to the left of the Kaminarimon gate, you can find two artisan shops: Kaneso（かね惣）, selling handmade knives where you can get your knife sharpened on the spot.
Kaneso’s artisan knives. Celebrities have come here and signed these shikishi.
Right across the street from Kaneso is Bunsendo（文扇堂）, a shop selling everything related to fans. Back in the Edo era, the fans looked slightly different – the sensu were thicker and there were less furrows, giving the fans a sturdier feel. Check them out to see how they looked back then. The designs on the fans are captivating!
Farther down, just before the Hozomon Gate with two giant Kannon statues guarding the entrance to the Sensoji, look to the right to find a small shop with thousands of toy miniatures of animals. The shop, Sukeroku （助六）, makes their own toys as small as possible in accordance to a law passed in the late Edo era where excess buying was outlawed, so they made the toys as small as possible. Empress Michiko bought a papier-mache dog from this shop for Princess Masako to as an amulet wishing for a safe childbirth.
Look at all of these trinkets in Sukeroku…
Mannequins above Stores
Along the Denboin street, the street crossing the middle of Nakamise, you can find two groups of mannequins of people sticking to the walls like Spiderman. To the west, there is a man with his head covered by a tenugui, tied around his nose, a common thief guise in Japan. He is Jirokichi the Rat (Nezumi Kozo), a Robin Hood-like thief, although it is not proven that he actually gave away his spoils to the poor.
Heads up! Nezumi Kozo’s eyeing his next victim’s pocket!
To the east of Nakamise, just by the intersection with Denboin, there are five mannequins perching around the walls like ninja. They are characters from a popular kabuki play, a band of honorable thieves called “Five Men of White Waves.” The leader, on a cart, is the legendary Nippon Daemon.
Check them out the next time you go to Asakusa!