Friday, June 4, 2010

Asakusa: Reconstruction Town

Legend has it that back in the 7th century AD two brothers taking a fishing jaunt on the Sumida River managed to hook a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy - and no amount of lobbing the object back into the murky waters would relieve them of the burden.

So, Sensoji Temple - dedicated to that persistent goddess - was built nearby, in an area now known as Asakusa, right here in the heart of what’s now Tokyo.

A millennium on after its foundation, a rabbit-warren of streets just north of Asakusa - named Yoshiwara - developed into a licensed brothel area, whose denizens ranged from higher class courtesans to el cheapo prostitutes; by the latter half of the 19th century, the grounds of Asakusa Park were given over to a Kabuki theatre, jugglers, geisha houses, circus acts, photography booths, dancers, comic storytellers, performing monkeys, bars, restaurants, and archery stalls where sellers of sexual favours were reputed to have offered a rather wide variety of services.

While constantly the victim of nuisance customers like fire and earthquake, most of this disappeared in the conflagration of World War 2. So, while it rates as this city’s oldest temple area, the buildings themselves are amongst Tokyo’s newest places since WW2 bombing destroyed all the original stuff.

Just a few minutes’ walk from Asakusa Subway Station, the imposing Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), houses two effigies of the gods of thunder and wind—although this gate is in fact a replica built in 1960, as its predecessor was destroyed in an air-raid.

Visitors must pass under its improbably huge paper lantern, then negotiate the historic, forever-crowded Nakamise shopping arcade (a maze of stalls that’s over 200 meters long, full of faux Japanese historical odds and ends, yukata robes, fans, regional snacks, and plastic samurai swords), then pass by a five-storied pagoda (itself a 1973 reconstruction) and under the Hanzomon Gate, before even reaching Sensoji - which is usually awash in incense, used for purification, and guaranteed to induce a cough or two.

Even Sensoji Temple is itself a replica, constructed in 1958. Like the Kaminarimon and much of the rest of Tokyo, it was flattened in the Allied blanket bombing in 1945.

Still, you can’t complain about the location, and if some of the spice and sizzle of previous centuries has disappeared, you can still spot the occasional geisha.

There's also Kappabashi-dori (かっぱ橋), best reached from Tawaramachi Station on the Ginza Line. This is Tokyo’s restaurant wholesale district, and sells that insanely detailed plastic food you see displayed in Japanese eateries, metal spatulas, deep fryers, cool restaurant food banners, and an intense array of crockery.

And just nearby, on the banks of the Sumida itself - where that goddess statue came from—is the commercial HQ for a famed Japanese company that for some is itself deified.

Called the Asahi Building (not to be confused with the TV Asahi premises in Roppongi Hills) the place has what looks like a golden piece of crap atop, and is mecca for anyone who’s dabbled with Japanese beer or brushed up against the silver-shrouded contents of Asahi Super Dry - without doubt Japan's most famous international amber fluid.

Mmmm... beer.

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