In the Japanese capital, age-old traditions are providing the inspiration for renewal in the historic Asakusa district, a short trip from Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, says Kate Crockett
Photography by Kate Crockett and the Japan National Tourist Organisation. Illustrations by Jacqueline Bissett
It’s 8.30am and two mothers ride side by side, chattering as they steer their bicycles on a short cut through the grounds of Senso-ji temple. They are both ferrying their infant sons – who are dressed in standard-issue white shirt, shorts, beribboned straw hats and yellow plimsolls – to school. Meanwhile, temple attendants in wooden sandals clip clop from building to building, organising the trays of lucky charms for sale and refilling the drawers of paper fortunes. To the west of the temple precincts, the clear morning lights up the impressive five-storey pagoda.
In Nakamise-dori, the shopping street approaching the temple, stallholders begin to throw open their shutters, revealing their wares – cakes, rice crackers and souvenirs – to the delighted junior high school students on a day trip from the suburbs. In between rummaging through the myriad character toys, fans, masks and snacks, they accost Western tourists to read, from a script: ‘What is your name? Where are you from?’ Each response is carefully recorded in their exercise books before they seek out another visitor to add to their chart. Asakusa, in the northeast of the city, is the best place in Tokyo to find foreign visitors – even this early in the morning!
The grand Senso-ji Buddhist temple is the spiritual soul of Asakusa, the former downtown entertainment heart of Tokyo. In the years before the war, dancing girls graced the stages of Asakusa’s revue halls, Japan’s first cinemas thrilled the masses and the long-established licensed pleasure quarters, with their famous geisha and courtesans, thrived. Visiting Asakusa from Tokyo’s brash western districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya is like stepping back in time.
There is space, charm and a true sense of community – a place where real Tokyoites continue to live – not to mention the stunning temple that is the centre of attention. Forty million visitors descend on Asakusa every year in search of what’s left of ‘old Tokyo’, one million of whom are foreign.
And so, each day, the precincts of Senso-ji and Nakamise-dori teem with visitors. Runners from the two booming rickshaw businesses, in their distinctive Edo-period costumes, haul tourists around the major sights: the imposing temple gate, the Kaminarimon gate, the Asakusa Shrine, the 400-year-old Nitenmon gate and the fascinating 19th-century Hana-yashiki funfair. On festival days, which happen at the temple and neighbouring Shinto shrine virtually every month, numbers swell. Amongst them are the January radish festival, April’s baby-crying contest and December’s ornamental battledore fair. The biggest is the Sanja festival in May, which celebrates the Shinto deities that protect 44 local communities. It involves 100 portable shrines each carried on a wave of at least 40 people, and attracts over a million spectators over three days.
Festivals, traditional entertainments and native arts and crafts are at the centre of every-day Asakusa life. Local shops make their own rice crackers and ningyo-yaki sweets (doll-shaped buns filled with sweet red beans); artisans continue to make dancers’ fans, tabi (socks with toes to allow for sandals) and tortoiseshell hair ornaments. Asakusa as an entertainment centre survives on a more moderate scale with the geisha, family theatre troupes and comics who continue to make it their home and workplace. Around 60, mainly elderly, geisha remain in Asakusa and, in recent years, they have been joined by a new kind of entertainer who draws on the traditional geisha arts of dance and conversation but is a thoroughly modern girl.
At 4pm, as visitors head home from Senso-ji, a young woman is commuting in to Asakusa from her home west of Tokyo. She arrives at her workplace, slips off her shoes in the entrance and takes a seat behind a table upon which are all the things she needs: white theatrical base foundation, a sponge and a brush, white powder and a puff, red lip colour and a brush, brown eyebrow colour and purple eye shadow, black eye pencil and mascara. She sets to work applying the make-up to her face while a colleague whitens her neck and shoulders. Her visage complete, she slips into her under kimono and tabi socks. Next she is helped into yards of silk kimono embroidered with cherry blossoms – the ubiquitous symbol of spring in Japan – and her dramatic wig is set in place. Her kimono is secured with silk ties over which her silk obi sash is tied with yet more silk cord. With a few lucky charms attached to her obi, some ornate hairpieces adorning her wig and a traditional-style clutch bag in hand, within half an hour, the 23-year-old is transformed into Tsubaki, a furisode.
To the untrained eye, the furisode, with her captivating white face and neck, and berry lips, looks just like a geisha. But to the seasoned observer, her attire gives her away as something different. First there are the long, almost trailing, sleeves of her kimono from which she takes her name. Furisode means ‘long sleeves’ and this dressy style of kimono is only worn by young women. In the Edo period, it was worn only by daughters of the wealthy, as the impractically long sleeves meant the women couldn’t work. Then there’s the tying of her obi sash in a style distinctive to Asakusa – a style similar to that of a hangyoku, apprentice geisha. Then her coiffure – a 2kg wig, crafted in real hair for each individual furisode, by one of only two remaining wig makers in Tokyo – in a style worn only by younger women and apprentice geisha.
Tsubaki (which means ‘Camellia’) and the 14 other beautifully named Asakusa furisode are entertainers in the geisha mould – they dance, serve drinks and make conversation, smooth the way for business deals and captivate tourists. But they are also unlike geisha in many ways – they are a modern take on one of Japan’s best-loved traditions – and this makes them crucial to the cultural future of Asakusa. As a child growing up in Mukojima, close to Asakusa, Tsubaki was captivated by the geisha she often saw. ‘That inspired me to become a geisha – it was my dream from when I was a small child,’ she says. ‘But being a geisha is so difficult because you have to support yourself financially,’ she adds. And so, after leaving school five years ago, Tsubaki became a furisode instead.
For women who don’t want to risk the economic uncertainty or financial outlay associated with geisha life, but do still want to learn about and preserve Japanese traditional arts, furisode is an attractive alternative. As employees of the Asakusa Kanko Furisode Gakuin (Asakusa Tourism Furisode Academy), set up by local gift-shop owners, the girls have the security of regular hours (4-10pm), regular pay, access to 500 kimonos, silk obi and a treasure trove of accessories, plus dance lessons and tea-ceremony training. There is also the cachet of this kind of work. ‘My friends think I’m like an actress,’ says 20-year-old Momo (‘Peach’). In turn, the furisode are on hand to attend functions or local, national and international events promoting Japan and Japanese culture. As geisha numbers decline, they help preserve certain traditions and provide access to Japanese arts at a time when interest in them is huge. The Academy’s manager, Lisa Kawai, says: ‘Not many people want to be geisha, but Asakusa has a very important culture that the local business owners felt was important to hand down, which is why they established the furisode.
- Asakusa Culture and Sightseeing Centre is open daily 10am-5pm; opposite the Kaminarimon gate
- Goodwill Guides offer free local tours in English and other languages to overseas visitors. A weekly tour of Asakusa organised by volunteer guides meets at the information centre every Sunday at 11am and 1.30pm and lasts for one hour. Just turn up. For more information visit www2.ocn.ne.jp/~sgg/
- Or book a personal guide through www.jnto.go.jp/eng/GJ/travelSupport/list_volunteerGuides.html. Guides are registered with the Japanese National Tourist Organisation. They are volunteers and there is no charge for their service. You are only expected to pay for transport, admission to tourist facilities should you visit any, and their meals if you want to eat with them