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Friday, July 6, 2007

WALKING THE WARDS

A very red-light district


You won't find many red lights larger than the enormous paper lantern at Taito Ward's Sensoji, or Asakusa Kannon Temple.

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Sensoji's Hozomon GATE; storage for 14th century Chinese sutras and hanging wall for owaraji (giant straw sandals), the traditional footwear of ascetic Buddhist monks KIT NAGAMURA PHOTOS

The Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate) lantern, named after the entrance from which it hangs, has to be steadied by guy wires, not simply for the convenience of photographers, but also because at nearly 700 kg, a rogue wind could get this baby knocking the lights out of unsuspecting tourists.

Eastern Taito Ward will floor you nonetheless; tourists and locals love it. On any given day, the Nakamise, an arcade of more than 90 shops leading up to the temple, is packed. The air is seasoned with grilled rice crackers, ningyo-yaki (hot buns filled with bean paste), and temple incense, and many of the establishments — some more than a century old — offer unique merchandise. Bangasa (oil-paper umbrellas), paper and silk fans, hair ornaments and yukata (summer kimono) represent the basic souvenir fare, but unusual specialty shops include Hyotan-ya, which stocks accessories for shamisen, a plucked, three-stringed instrument, and Komachi Hair, which features elaborate wigs of synthetic or human hair in updos or shimadamage.

The Nakamise funnels crowds toward the temple's main hall. The majority of Sensoji's buildings are post-World War II reconstructions, built after the complex was decimated in air raids. The temple's history, however, extends back to the 600s when legend has it that fraternal fishermen, the Hinokuma brothers, were net-casting off the banks of the Miyato (present-day Sumida) River and hauled in a tiny figurine of Kannon, or the goddess of mercy. They brought their astonishing catch to their village elder, who promptly enshrined it in his home. Eventually Empress Suiko, a devout Buddhist, decreed in 628 that a temple be built to honor the statue.

Before the Edo Period (1603-1868), when it still nudged the waters of Tokyo Bay, Asakusa — a name many believe derived from the Japanese for "short grass" — hosted a lively marketplace. Local fishermen hoisted from the bay yet another treasure that gained popularity nationwide: Asakusa nori (seaweed).

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A chef mascot at a Kappabashi restaurant supply store

When Tokugawa Ieyasu arrived to govern Edo (1603), he used landfill to eradicate the wetlands surrounding Asakusa, tapped the temple as his family's place of worship, and the area flourished.

Over the centuries, Asakusa has endured cycles of floods, fires, and periods of grim financial slump and neglect. "For decades, it went downhill for lack of good transportation options," comments Ichiko Nagamura (73), who recalls munching on kaminari-okoshi, a thunderously crunchy, locally-made popped-rice snack, at age 3. "It was dead at night, and a bit sad. But the Tobu Express and the opening of Engei Hall have really livened things up."

The relatively New Asakusa Engei Hall, specializing in rakugo (comic storytelling) performances, is located in Asakusa's Rokku Broadway (Sixth Block Broadway), surrounded by the ghosts and reincarnations of some of Japan's first movie theaters.

If you want to check the pulse of Asakusa, try the Hozuki Ichi, a sale of ground cherry, or Chinese-lantern plants. Pick up a hearty specimen that produces papery calyx replicas of the Kaminari-mon lantern. Originally cultivated for medicinal properties, hozuki are hawked on hundreds of stalls on the evening of July 9 though the 10th.

Those who'd prefer to obtain a real red light of their own can drop into Hanato, in Taito 2-chome, where Masao Sakurai and his daughter, Yuko (who speaks English), hand-fashion paper lanterns. A personalized chochin costs about 8,000 yen, "but please order a couple of months in advance because this is a handcraft, and we get backed up," warns Masao.

As you read this, the Iriya Asagao (morning glory) Festival will be in full swing at Taito Ward's Kishibojin Temple, from July 6-8. Some of the yukata-clad customers are as equally lovely as the flowers on sale. During the Meiji Era, idle shoppers could gaze over the botanicals to Yoshiwara, the walled quarters where flowers of a different sort were bought and sold.

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A spiffy new spinner at Hanayashiki Amusement Park (top); morning glory vendors at Chokoku Temple; a yakatabune moored near the former geisha district of Yanagibashi

Today, anyone drifting north from Asakusa toward Yoshiwara will first come across Japan's oldest amusement park, the diminutive Hanayashiki. Originally opened 150 years ago as a flower and tea garden, the park added Western-style rides in 1953, including what is Japan's oldest roller coaster ride. Until recently, the thrills and chills came from Hanayashiki's rusty equipment and haunted carnival atmosphere. Though still cramped, the whole park has been revamped. It's pricey, but the maze ends in a surprise you'd pay a great deal more to encounter in Yoshiwara.

This once licensed, walled and moat-encircled red-light district kept courtesans and indentured girls inside, limited the time men could stay with them, and essentially got the official nod from the government. By the end of the 1800s, over 9,000 syphilis-inflicted women lived in the Yoshiwara neighborhood. The "pleasure quarters" experienced multiple redefinitions over the ages, but fires, earthquakes, and Meiji Era moral edicts eventually eroded what historic ambience the area may have had. Today, the cultural texture that gave the neighborhood its frisson, immortalized with cutting accuracy by famous author Ichiyo Higuchi in her 1895 novella "Takekurabe (Growing Up)," no longer exists.

Doormen guard the rust-scared "soapland" joints of modern-day Yoshiwara, busy even on weekday mornings with clients in search of services that advertise, among other things, fun with an oiled pool float. The Ichiyo Higuchi Memorial Museum edges Yoshiwara, the site of the author's former home. Though the chic, solar-powered structure offers little information in Japanese, and even less in English, a store two minutes south sells Ichiyo Higuchi wine for a little less than the bill on which appears her likeness: the 5,000 yen note.

Near what was once the grand entrance gate to Yoshiwara, a modern-day seedling of the mikaeri, or "looking back willow," which Yoshiwara customers used to pass with sighs, is barely visible beneath a huge Shell gas-station sign.

Shielded by its own shell, the mythological water sprite kappa is the mascot of Kappabashi, an area just west of Asakusa that was once prone to frequent flooding. A blend of leech, frog, turtle and bad-hair day, the kappa doesn't seem like the most appetizing creature to represent "Kitchen Town," but there you have it. Kappabashi Avenue boasts everything from toaster ovens to chic table settings, plastic food for restaurant displays to little red lanterns used by aka-chochin (Japanese-style pubs) and a lively Tanabata festival (July 6-10).

Finally, a walk south along the Sumida River leads to the once geisha-proud Yanagibashi and Asakusabashi areas. Bare remnants of the area's former grandeur survive in the gracefully bobbing yakatabune (pleasure boats) and images of hair ornaments cast into the iron of Yanagibashi, or willow bridge.

Shimojima, an outstanding emporium of wrapping and decorative goods, Kyugetsu, the purveyor of ornate traditional dolls, and tiny boutique companies such as Mokuba, world-renown for its innovative ribbons, are the red-hot coals of an area set to fire up its cultural scene once again.

Want even more red-light exposure? Check out the Sumida River Fireworks Festival on July 29.

Taito Ward (Part II) will appear in the next Walking the Wards column on Aug. 3


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