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Asakusa 1

By Yukiko Tanaka

For The North American Post

Leaving Chiyoda Ward, at the center of which lies the Imperial Palace, we now go westward to Taito Ward, which holds both Asakusa and Ueno. Although not fully shitamachi low-town, these are the neighborhoods where you can taste the ambiance of old Tokyo, and even see a historical continuity to the Edo era. You will need two or three days to fully enjoy the two, thus a change of hotel is recommended. It makes sense to find a hotel near Asakusabashi Station (both JR line and the subway), and nearby you can find more than a few business hotels to choose from.

Asakusa has been the most popular destination among foreign tourists visiting Tokyo for a long time; of late, however, it has given way to Shinjuku in popularity. The two are very different neighborhoods culturally as well as in their histories. Asakusa, with Sensoji Temple at its center and origins going back to the 7th century is an old town which has flourished since the Edo period.

A bit of history of Edo, presently Tokyo. When Tokugawa Iyeyasu established himself as the first shogun and built a castle (where the Imperial Palace is now) at the beginning of the 16th century, there were altogether one hundred or so houses and on the surrounding flat lands were a few fishing villages into which tides washed in and out and people gathered seaweed at and around where Sensoji Temple now stands. Under the system set by Iyeyasu, all provincial lords (daimyo) were obliged to maintain their Edo residences where they lived half of their time while their families lived all year around as hostages of sort. Most daimyo kept three separate residences—the upper, the middle and the lower—where their retainers (samurais) and those who worked for the household lived. In addition, there were merchants, artisans and their families who lived in Edo, making its population very large, approaching one million at one time. Edo was considerably larger than London, whose population was then around 70,000.

Edo Tokyo was a city with an anomaly. Roughly 70 percent of its population were samurais, the ruling class, who did not work, like farmers and artisans, in producing and making things; an additional 15 percent was priests, who also did not produce things. The rest was the “townsfolk,” and they were not allowed to own lands. Most people living in Edo were consumers in other words; along with those who go door-to-door selling food were many eateries of various types.

In those days there were nearly four hundred such eateries in Asakusa including movable carts from which sushi, tempura, soba, etc. were served. The carts were concentrated around the Kaminarimon Gate of Sensoji Temple. What we consider today as traditional Japanese cuisine, was served from the very beginning at those stalls where patrons ate standing up (you see such establishments today in and out of train stations). Most of the patrons were single men, some coming from neighboring rural areas to work in Asakusa but also single samurais without their own families, typically the second and third sons.

Asakusa was a bustling place during the Edo period, and at its center was, as it is today, Sensoji Temple. Not too far to its north was Yoshiwara, Edo’s largest pleasure quarter, and men, following the way of men of the world, went there on a boat via Sanya-bori, the canal connected to the Sumida River. The canal, which has since been reclaimed and made into a road, was just north of Sensoji.

E. Seidensticker, who published two volumes on Tokyo, Low City, High City and Tokyo Rising, introduces observations made of Asakusa by B.S Chamberlain, British teacher who came to Japan in early Meiji. Asakusa, he claimed, was the “liveliest place” in Tokyo, a place with a ‘performing monkey’ and such, he said, it is the entertainment center where people can have fun inexpensively. Another foreign visitor to Asakusa around the same time described it as ‘fascinating’ place where ‘the sacred’ and ‘the pleasure’ exist side by side (also quoted by Seidensticker). Although it was a common practice in pre-modern Japan to have pleasure-seeking activities of all kinds (‘the pleasure’) right outside temples (‘the sacred’), it is astute of this man to observe this characteristic of Asakusa.

[Editor’s Note]

This series introduce a histical view of various sites in Tokyo. The writer can be reached atytanaka03@gmail.com.