Apr 02: A Day in Asakusa

I first heard the song Technopolis by Yellow Magic Orchestra about 27 years ago. YMO was a pioneering synth-pop band in the 1980s that achieved international recognition, a rare feat for a Japanese band. The song Technopolis is about Tokyo; it features as its sole lyrics a voice synthesizer spelling the word “T-E-C-H-N-O-P-O-L-I-S” and uttering the name “Tokyo”. I just listened to the same song on my iPod while looking down on Tokyo from our hotel window. Little did I suspect, 27 years ago, that I would one day visit this wonderful city.

After our extensive explorations during our first two days here we deliberately planned a more relaxed schedule today. There are a number of shrines and temples, large and small, near our hotel in Asakusa. There are also hundreds of booths and shops in the streets and alleys around the temples. Tamae had led us through this area and introduced us to the appropriate practices at the temple (and yes, this was the part of the blog entry that I had to cut short), but we wanted to go back for several reasons.

Digression: in case you’re wondering, Asakusa pronounced “ah-sahk-oo-sah” with a slight accent on the second syllable. Until we heard it pronounced by Tamae, we thought it was “ah-sah-koo-sah” with a heavier accent on the third syllable. In general Japanese has no conspicuous emphasis of syllables, although there seems to be some tendency to accent the second syllable.

It’s an interesting and faintly bizarre (to Western eyes) juxtaposition: you pass through a large gate at one end of a long street, you wander down the street flanked with vendors selling foods, candies, toys, trinkets, clothing, shoes, etc., you pass through another large gate, and you enter any or all of the shrines and temples to make offerings (of coins) and pray, after pausing for purification at the fountain and wafting healing incense across the parts of your body that need it most. And that’s exactly what the Japanese do. It’s all quite cheerful and festive on the way in, and while people are appropriately solemn and contemplative while bowing in front of the icon and/or shrine of their choice, it’s quite clear that they’re doing it because they enjoy it and not because they feel some sense of guilt, sin, and/or obligation.

Our first goal was to find a washi (handmade paper) store near the entrance end of the street. (That’s the end furthest from our hotel, incidentally.) We found the store but it was closed. We sat on the curb in front for awhile and watched the people go by so that Tracie could rest a bit. The fellow in the following photo caught our eye. Eventually we figured out that he was a rickshaw driver trying to cajole business from the passers-by.

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After awhile we started to wonder whether the store was going to open at all. I started politely asking people nearby whether they spoke English, and on the second attempt found someone who could translate the sign on the shop’s door for me. She confirmed that the store was closed on Mondays so we headed back in the direction of the temples. Almost immediately I spotted an irresistable temptation:

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The temptation is the box full of steamed buns just to the left of the person in the center of the photo. They’re on the posters, too. I bought two of them. Here’s a shot from beside and slightly behind the counter:

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(I’m trying very hard to not yield to the temptation to make a joke involving a young woman and nice buns.) The dough was remarkably light and spongy, and the filling was (I think) minced pork with onions and ginger. They were delicious. Fortified with one of those, and one in my pocket for later, we next went to a vending machine for something to drink. To Tracie’s delight we found one that had hot cocoa. Tracie hasn’t been able to drink coffee or tea here because the very concept of decaffeinated coffee doesn’t seem to have entered into the Japanese consciousness, so to find something warm and delicious that she can drink in a vending machine was possibly the high point of the day.

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I’m quite sure we could get her a modeling job endorsing this brand of beverage if we showed that photo to its maker’s marketing department. It is oddly satisfying to get a hot can of something out of a vending machine and roll it between your palms.

You’ll notice that the street in the background of that photo is quite empty. The street ran parallel to the main one, so we took advantage of it to walk back towards the temples rather than once again wading through the throngs in the main drag. Just outside of the second gate we made one of the shopkeepers quite happy by purchasing a number of gifts for our respective family members. (No, I’m not telling. That would spoil the surprise.)

This is what the main drag looks like:

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(That photo was actually taken on Sunday, but it looked the same today.) Now you see why we took advantage of the much less crowded side street. Here are a few photos of some of the booths:

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That last one is of a fellow scraping kelp. He’s holding down one end with his foot. This one’s for Lisa from Tracie:

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All of this walking, gawking and shopping makes one a bit hungry. I passed up the Octopus Ball in favor of this woman’s establishment:

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That’s a big pile of noodles on a hot griddle in front of her. As far as we can tell she stands there all day frying noodles, flavoring them with half a dozen mysterious sauces, sprinklings, and chopped vegetables. They’re served piping hot on paper plates. There are a couple of other women of roughly the same age going back and forth between the counter and the seating area. The seating area has low tables and precarious small stools (on gravel, mind you–this is all in a large tent, not a permanet shop) with enough room for about 30 patrons. You catch the eye of someone on the way in, tell them what you want in a mixture of abbreviated English and gestures (“Noodles? Hai?! Noodles! 500 for one! Hai!“), they lead you to one of the tables, and shortly bring you your food. It’s boisterious, crowded (with natives of all ages and the occasional brave foreigner), the food is great, and it’s a tremendous amount of fun.

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The second photo shows skewers of chicken, lightly sauced and grilled. The guy visible over my shoulder is doing the grilling. After that meal I’m entirely convinced I could live happily on Tokyo street food and vending-machine beverages. Speaking of vending-machine beverages, it seems that Tommy Lee Jones endorses Boss coffee:

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After lunch we walked through the temple area. I realize that I’m still glossing over the intricacies of the temples and shrines but I’m also starting to get tired. Here are some photos; as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words:

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Here are some pictures from the areas near the main shrine:

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My mother has probably noticed the rain chain in the previous photo. Here’s a closer shot of it:

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I’d love to know what this sign says. My guess is that it’s something along the lines of “don’t feed the pigeons because they’ll poop on your children–and our nice statues of buddhas–if you do. They’re supposed to eat worms, after all.”

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