Saturday, June 21, 2008

In Asakusa

I'm writing an essay for a band (more on that some other day), and have been doing research on the town of Asakusa as part of that effort. A book I found by the actor and essayist Shoichi Ozawa has been very useful. The thing about Asakusa is that there are lots of interesting things away from the main tourist strip, but you have to know what you're looking for, and this book highlights them.

For example, I found out reading Ozawa's book about a bodhisattva statue called Ichiyou Kannon, standing lonesome in an empty lot behind Sensouji temple. A woman working in nearby Yoshiwara had sent her young son off to work (a common thing in the Edo era), but one day she hears her son's voice say “I've come home”, and soon after she receives the sad news that the son has drowned. In her sorrow she has a kannon sculpted to look like her son—and it still stands, alone, behind the big temple.

Right next to the Ichiyou Kannon is the Asakusa Shrine, which gets less notice than Sensouji because it's smaller and less imposing, but the shrine building is an Important Cultural Property and is quite beautiful—on the facade are pictures of dragons, including one that looks like like a cross between a fly and a dragon, and the interior of the shrine is guarded by two samurai dolls. It's at this shrine that I took the picture of a carefree cat above, napping at the legs of a stone lion.

One interesting thing about Japan is that temples and shrines and red-light districts often lie side by side, and that's the case with Asakusa. In the early-post-war years the area was famous for its striptease theaters, and I had thought that scene had died out, but it looks like some places are still going strong in the Rokku neighborhood a short walk away, along with movie theaters that show both classic yakuza movies and porn (and the neighboring town of Yoshiwara is a whole different matter...). There are also rakugo and popular theaters, the latter of which seem to put on light samurai plays.

Outside a 'Popular Theater'

By the way, to get my music fix while in Asakusa I always head to Oto No Yorodo, a record shop just down the street from Kaminari-mon that has an amazing collection of enka, rakugo, retro Japanese music and all sorts of other CDs and tapes you can't find elsewhere.

An Enka Record Shop

Tokyo is such a huge city that the Tokyo of Asakusa is really quite a different entity from, say, the Tokyo of Shibuya, not to mention Oku-Tama or Koenji or Roppongi. And like any big city Tokyo is a constantly evolving organism, so I don't think anyone can ever truly be a 'Tokyo expert', just like you can't really be an NYC expert or Paris expert, and the best you can do is know one area like Shinjuku or Asakusa or Kichijoji inside out.

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