A Walk in Asakusa: A Glimpse into Edo’s Craftsmanship

unnamed-1.jpgThe 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.

unnamed-7.jpgNotice 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.

unnamed-4.jpgThousands 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.

unnamed-5.jpgKaneso’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.

spot_img_01_l.jpgLook 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.

unnamed-6.jpgHeads 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!

A Walk through Ginza

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Ginza, the most posh part of Tokyo, has always been associated with wealth. Even its own name reeks of opulence: Ginza comes from gin (銀 silver) and za (座  mint), as it used to have a mint, one of the original ones constructed during the Edo Bakufu period.

Moreover, it is right next to Nihonbashi, the spiritual nexus of Edo-Tokyo, so the area is dripping of history and old money. If you ask me, new money is out to the west, around Roppongi, Shibuya, Omotesando, Aoyama, etc.

The area was ravaged by the Great Fire of 1872, leveling buildings, but as they say, fire is a kind of cleansing agent, giving room for rebirth. The fire of 1872 gave the Japanese government the opportunity to re-design it according to their wishes, and they did this with three things in mind:

  1. absorbing some of the Western culture
  2. displaying Japanese’ modernization
  3. fire-resistant

And the new beautiful brick buildings, serving as a barrier to fires, propelled Ginza into the glitzy, posh area it is today. Today, there is no ugly phone lines or signboardsimpeding your view (lack of phonelines is a rarity in Japan) and the wide sidewalks made of natural granite give you the feel of spaciousness.

unnamed-6The granite in the sidewalks were recycled from the stones supporting the Chuo-line tram.

On Sundays, Ginza’s streets are blocked to traffic, allowing the pedestrians to walk around and sit on tables in the middle of the street. This is one of my favorite things to do in Tokyo, especially on a sunny day.

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No unsightly phone lines, no signboards, no cars, good weather… pedestrian heaven!

Ginza is basically one giant boulevard stretching 8 blocks from Kyobashi to Shinbashi. The blocks are numbered one from eight, from north at Kyobashi going south towards Shinbashi. I’m going to tell you some of the popular spots and one of my favorite shops in Ginza.

At 1-chome, the first block of Ginza, there is the Police Museum, popular with kids. Here you can hop onto a police motorcycle at the entrance for a picture. Give it a shot!

 

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One of the most popular stores in Ginza is the ITOYA, a stationery lover’s utopia. Go up to the 8th floor to find beautiful Japanese paper washi and there are even some gifts made entirely out of washi. There are hundreds pens, notebooks, items for your home and office to get lost for hours.

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This is the second ITOYA shop, located right behind the main store. Just walk through the first store to the back to find this oft-overlooked shop.

To get a feel of how rich Ginza is, go down to 4-chome or so to the Mikimoto Pearl store. Enter the fancy store with a curving staircase and drool over pearl necklaces, rings, and earrings valued in the millions (of yen). The most expensive one I saw was a 7 million yen (65,000 dollars) necklaces.

A staple of Ginza food is the Kimuraya bakery near the central intersection of Ginza, famous for its sweet bean paste pastries, anpan. The soft, sweet bread are made from sake yeast, and they are stuffed with sweet bean paste, along with different flavors like sakura or pumpkin. The quality is A-class, and the Japanese know it. It was founded by an ex-samurai after the Meiji Restoration, and Emperor Meiji loved the bread sold here, and ordered it as an official food of the House, and it flew off the shelves after word got out.

unnamed-1.jpgCoffee anpan, anyone?

The Ginza 4-chome crossing’s large intersection is called the “Times Square of Japan” (although I would disagree with that moniker – I think Shibuya Scramble is more deserving of that name). You can see the iconic neo-Renaissance smooth facade, now used by the Wako store. The building was built in 1932 and survived the WW2 Tokyo bombings. Under the giant clock, you can see the large display boxes with creative designs.

unnamed-8.jpgThe Neo-Renaissance Wako building at the main intersection of Ginza, built in 1932.

Just on the other side of the intersection lies the most expensive plot of land in all of Japan: just front of Kyukyodo washi shop. There’s no marker or sign to point you where, but stand front of Kyukyodo and look around. Crowds form on all 4 corners of the intersection and the Wako store is right there. It’s a unique view. A step is said to be worth 2 to 3 million yen, a year’s salary for many people.

Go down a few blocks to 7-chome and go east one block to find a small street to find my favorite coffee shop in the area, the Cafe l’Ambre. This cafe only serves coffee and coffee pudding, nothing more or less. The dim interior harkens you back to the Showa era with a hardboiled feel to it: people drinking coffee while tobacco smoke slowly swirls upwards. One small coffee is worth 800 yen or more, quite expensive, but some of the beans are aged 10+ years, giving it a punch and a boost you need for the rest of the day. The owner founded this in 1948, when coffee was not yet popular with the locals, and he has managed to keep it running in the expensive part of Tokyo. The owner, Sekiguchi Ichiro, is still alive as of 2017, aged over 100 years old, although he only visits the store every now or then. I only caught a glimpse of him sitting in the small shop office once, sporting a philosophical gaze.

unnamed.jpgCOFFEE ONLY

Check them out the next time you pass by Ginza!

Bibliography:

東京歩き 松岡明子=著 ジョン・タラント=訳
Tokyo: A Walking Tour by Akiko Matsuoka, translated by John Turrent