ASAKUSA

The other day I went down to Asakusa to go shopping at the Nakamise, a long row of shops lining the approach to Sensoji Temple.  The last and only other time I visited Sensoji was in 1971 while on a group tour of Japan.  Most of my memories of that visit have faded, but one that still remains is of this shopping street we passed through on our way to the temple.  It was my first visit to any Buddhist temple in Japan, and while I am not sure what exactly I had been expecting—something more sedate, perhaps, and non-commercial—it definitely was not this row of slapped together stalls selling cheap and colorful souvenirs, fronted by their proprietors calling out to us to stop and shop.  It was like walking to church through a gantlet of carnival barkers.  (Forty years later, this bustling commercial activity in front of a temple seems perfectly ordinary to me.)

But the shopping street I walked down the other day seemed much more spruced up and extensive than what I remember.  According to the English “History of Nakamise” page at the Nakamise Promoting Union website [www.asakusa-nakamise.jp/e-index.html], a lot of work has been done since the mid-1980s to improve its appearance, which may account for the difference between my 1971 memory of Nakamise and what it is today.

Hoping to avoid the crowds, I went there on a weekday, after checking out the website to make sure no special events or festivals were being held that day.  So when I arrived at the famous Kaminari-mon, or large red gate through which you walk to reach Nakamise and beyond it the temple, I was surprised at the crowd.  Judging by the language I overheard, many of the visitors were tourists from China—belying media reports that group tours from China had been cancelled in the wake of the Senkaku Isles territorial dispute.  And there were groups of Japanese school kids, apparently on a field trip to Asakusa, running about and having a great time amid the many shops selling candy and taiyaki [a waffle-like snack shaped like a fish and filled with sweet bean paste] and gimcrack toys.

Entrance to Nakamise

After walking through or around the gate you can enter the Nakamise and join the milling crowd.  Over 80 shops line the two sides of the approach to the temple, selling mostly yummy-looking things like fresh-baked rice crackers, rice cakes, soft ice cream and other sweets; toys; gaudy kimono and accessories like folding fans or hair ornaments; T-shirts; and for some reason, shoes and bags.  But that is not all.  There are streets (closed to vehicles) crossing the Nakamise, dividing it into “blocks,” so you can also go left or right and find other clothing shops as well as restaurants.  And don’t forget behind the Nakamise either.


Behind the Nakamise

Souvenirs anyone?

Rice Crackers

More than halfway down the approach, I began to weary of the crowd and looked about for a coffee shop.  There’s nothing like that in the Nakamise itself, but I caught a glimpse of one down a side street to the right.  On my way to it I passed a robata-yaki (Japanese-style barbeque) restaurant set back from the street with a tanuki statue out front, and stopped to take a picture of this interesting creature.

The tanuki is an important figure in Japanese folk tales, often shape-shifting and playing tricks on humans.  The real tanuki resembles a badger in appearance, though apparently is not one.  I once saw one slinking across the road after dark as I made my way home from the station right here in Nishiogi.  He  ran down the tiny alleyway between two buildings and disappeared into the area under the elevated railroad tracks.  I suspect he  had been living in the walled-in garden of an old house that was in the process of being torn down to make way for what else but a new-condominium-minus-any-garden-or-trees.

Forbidden Photo

You often see tanuki statues in front of business establishments.  I suppose they are meant to attract business and customers.  I half-consciously noticed that there was a piece of paper taped to the statue, but I assumed it said “Don’t touch.”  However, after I took the picture, a woman who may have been the proprietor of the restaurant came running out of nowhere and yelled at me to stop taking pictures of the tanuki.  I was too taken aback to respond with much more than “Wha–?” so she jabbed her finger at the faded paper as if she expected me to read and understand the message, which, upon closer inspection, did in fact say “Do not take pictures.”  When I apologized, she scolded me some more, then turned abruptly in her fury and ran back into the restaurant.  I wanted to ask her why, because I wondered if there were some rule or custom about photographing these statues, but she ran off too fast, and I was too put off by her anger to chase after her.

The encounter made me want to leave the area, so I gave up on the coffee shop, which was directly next door to the tanuki, and walked to the end of the block to a main street.  Here I found a small fruit and vegetable shop with its wares out front, among them a basket of sprigs of fresh red pepper pods.  I moved toward the basket and noticed the proprietor, an older man, sitting nearby, scowling at me.  As I picked up the sprig of peppers, I saw a sign in English “DON’T TOUCH!” perched beside a basket of pears.  I quickly paid for my peppers and continued on my way.

Sensoji

The next left turn brought me through a side entrance into the grounds of Sensoji Temple.  I wandered around here a bit, breathing in the incense aroma and trying to recall my earlier visit, without success.  The incident with the tanuki statue had spoiled my mood, and I no longer felt any interest in paying my respects at the temple.  I turned and started back down the Nakamise, intent on getting the shopping done I had come here to do.

My shopping done, I was almost back at the entrance when I glanced down a side street to my right and saw a sign for another coffee shop, Kinryu, where I could get a perfectly decent cup of coffee and some toast with jam and butter before setting off on my journey home.  [Kinryu can be found by taking your first left after entering the Nakamise, at the “Sweet Sake” shop (decorated with pink and white rabbits) and then crossing the alley behind the Nakamise.  When you cross the alley, you’ll see a knife and scissors-maker on your left and a fan-maker on your right.  Keep going and find Kinryu on the right.]

When I got home and opened up my parcels, I was astounded to discover the way in which they had been wrapped.  In Japan, wrapping is a high art.  I love to watch store clerks wrapping up something I have bought with such meticulous care.  But one item, a small purse, had been wrapped up in the shop’s paper any old way and roughly taped at both ends.  Even the dirty potatoes I buy at the local organic food store are wrapped in newspaper with greater care than this lovely beaded purse had been given.  At another store I had bought two items, one of which was a good luck charm on a card and the other a handkerchief map of the Tokyo railway system.  Both of these items had been roughly folded up and stuck into a small bag.  When I took them out they were creased and wrinkled.  I recalled that the woman in the bag shop, though friendly enough, had looked a bit harried, and the shop had been so full of customers it had been difficult for me to reach the cash register.  And I recalled further that at the other shop the woman had not been at all friendly, but had been eyeing the customers as if she expected us to walk off with the merchandise without paying for it.  Could this have accounted for the untypically careless wrapping?

In a recent post [“Senso-ji Temple of Asakusa,” Nov. 2, ’10], globalpost blogger The Soul of Japan wrote “Walking along Nakamise-dori street you instantly get a sense that you are in the real Japan.”  I don’t know about that.  Is Nakamise the “real Japan”?  That’s kind of like saying Plimouth Plantation is the “real America.”  My own impression is of an aging geisha.  She works hard on keeping up appearances, and still has a large clientele, but underneath the fresh white paint and elegant new kimono, she’s getting weary of this job and feels a growing antipathy toward her customers, who have come to spend their money on her entertainments but who just can’t keep their hands off the merchandise.

"I got my eye on you..."

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