SAVOURING THE OLD & NEW

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Published on September 04, 2019 with No Comments

Where the past meets the present in Asakusa, the heart of Tokyo’s historic downtown.

Words ANIS RAMLI
Images JNTO

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Asakusa, in the heart of Tokyo’s shitamachi (downtown), lies along the Sumida River, a popular site for viewing cherry blossoms. The season drives the crowds in droves but, outside the frenzied sakura season, Asakusa charms with its old town feel juxtaposed against Japan’s never-ending thirst for modernisation.

Asakusa came to be thanks to a rich next-door neighbour, Kuramae. During the Edo period (1603-1868), Kuramae – which means “in front of the storehouses” – was, as the name suggests, a district for rice storage. Kuramae’s rice agents (fudasashi) would later profit from the monopoly
of rice sales, giving out loans with high interests. With a considerable amount of disposable income in their hands, the fudasashi would spend it in Asakusa, where kabuki theatres and geisha houses were aplenty.

Today, many consider Asakusa to be the heart of Old Tokyo. Narrow alleys, modest family-owned business, traditional houses – these all can be seen around this neighbourhood. Most of the activities in Asakusa is centred around the instantly-recognised and enormous bright-red Kaminarimon, meaning “thunder gate”. The gate’s centrepiece is a magnificent red lantern made by a Kyoto lantern maker. It measures 3.9-metres high, 3.3-metres wide and weighs about 700 kilograms. Enter through this gate and it will take you to Sensoji Temple, but not before you marvel at the small souvenir shops where traditional crafts remain alive on Nakamise-dori. There are the ukiyo-e woodblock prints, geta (the high wooden platform clogs), washi paper from the 150-year-old Kurodaya-Honten and makers of traditional rice crackers, to name a few.

Branch out from Kaminarimon and you will find dozens of smaller shopping streets, perfect for a leisurely wander. Denpoin-dori, Kannon-dori and Asakusa Chuo-dori still maintain the flair of the Asakusa of before, with man-powered jinrikisha (rickshaw) still an unmistakeable sight, albeit for
the pleasure of tourists. These rickshaws, however, are a long-standing Asakusa institution and were first introduced to the area at the end of the Edo period when the ban on anything with wheels was finally lifted. It is easy to dismiss the ride as simply a tourist attraction but, as one passenger described it, being on the rickshaw allowed him to see parts of Asakusa that are not immediately seen by the pedestrian, especially with a well-informed driver.

Drivers can tell you where to spot the earliest cherry blossoms (at the aptly named Sakura Hostel Asakusa), stunning pocket gardens around Asakusa, the oldest soba store (Namikiyabu, founded in 1913) – and all these while running a commentary pulling the rickshaw! Perhaps the best way to get an insight into Asakusa is to speak with these drivers. With a rigorous training that takes a minimum a month to complete with two exams, a ride on the rickshaw will change your perspective of doing sightseeing, especially in a historical area such as Asakusa.

 

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