Tokyo is exquisite. There is an attention to detail that is utterly charming, and you feel like a child in a sweet shop as you walk the streets of Asakusa, finding treasure at every turn
Kaminari-mon Gate and Nakamise Arcade
An enormous, four-metre-high, scarlet-red paper lantern hangs high over the central archway of the Kaminari-mon Gate in Asakusa. A statue of the god of wind, Fujin, stands on its right hand side and on the left stands Raijin, the god of thunder. With its ornate sloping tiled roof and vermillion-red lacquer walls the Kaminari-mon, or “Thunder gate”, is a stunning symbol of Asakusa.
Behind this enormous gate a busy arcade of shops, known as the Nakamise or “inner shopping street”, sells all manner of local souvenirs and crafts. One shop was full from floor to ceiling of stuffed toy dogs, another sold unnervingly convincing replicas of samurai swords. Traditional yukata cotton robes vie for shelf space amid piles of exquisite silk purses, thick paper fans and framed block prints and postcards of the region.
Inside the unassuming shop front of Kurodaya, set on the right hand side of the Nakamise, an explosion of colour reigns across sheet after sheet of handmade paper, or ‘washi’. Fans line the wall and, in the window, glass shelves display a small menagerie of papier-mâché animals, with frogs, penguins and blue-nosed cows looking out onto the crowded streets.
At the far end of the arcade a high wall of white paper lanterns, inscribed with heavy black calligraphy, separates the shopping area from the forecourt of the Sensoji Temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo.
Clouds of incense and a paper fortune
With walls of the deepest blood-red and a ceiling covered in beautiful panelled paintings of dragons and figures draped in lotus blossoms, the Sensoji Temple is an enthralling place. From the back of the building, the sharp sound of coins hitting the wooden sides of the offering box fills the air, along with the heady scent of incense and the whispered prayers of the gathered worshippers. Women in kimonos stand patiently while tourists take their photograph, and children stretch high on their tiptoes to throw coins into the deep wooden slots of the offering box.
Outside the temple hundreds of visitors from all over the world wander in the grounds. A queue of people forms beside a huge bronze incense burner and as they step forward to stand, silently, around its rim, they cup their hands full of smoke and pat it into their skin and clothes. Elsewhere, worshippers and tourists alike carefully unroll random paper fortune slips, which they read and then tie in a knot around a thin wooden frame, leaving them to flap in the incense-filled breeze.
A feast on the streets
A tentative bite into a piping hot dumpling from a takoyaki stall, set behind the grounds of the Sensoji Temple, reveals a tender piece of octopus with shiny scarlet suckers. A box, filled with piles of shredded cabbage, fish flakes and bacon on a batter base from the nearby okonomiyaki stall, requires quick work with a pair of chopsticks and results in a gloriously burned mouth.
Greed in Japan is a wonderful thing, soon satisfied by the selection of incredibly good food available on the streets. In the Nakamise, one stall made pancakes that were literally sold hot off the press. As the chef in his glass booth flipped the iron presses open to reveal the pancakes within, crowds of people outside surged forward to press money into the cashiers’ hands. Further down the arcade, an ice cream stall display advertised nearly 30 flavours of ice cream, ranging from black sesame to melon, pineapple to peanut. Around the corner from the temple, a stall laden with biscuits and mochi in all colours offered a local taste of something sweet.
A short walk from the Temple Gate is the kitchenware district, the Kappabashi Dougugai-dori, famous for supplying the restaurants of Tokyo with everything from the ‘noren’ split-panelled curtains that hang from their front doors to the plastic food displays used outside so many Japanese restaurants to advertise the dishes on offer. Perfect pieces of kappa maki and salmon nigiri sit on display in the full heat of the day, their detail quite unnerving yet strangely irresistible.
This fascinating kilometre stretch of road sells everything from wooden sake bowls to sushi knives. There are shops stocked from floor to ceiling with beautiful ceramics and lacquerware bowls, and stores dedicated to tea-making that sell cast-iron teapots, or tetsubin, and silk-covered canisters of green and black teas. Tall cylindrical display stands, covered in tiny cast-iron presses for marking biscuits and pancakes, line the pavements and, on one corner, the rich smell of coffee fills the pavement from a specialist shop piled high with filter machines and enormous glass dispensers filled with different varieties of coffee beans.