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Journey in Japan Part 47: Round, round, get around, I get around

This weekend a local event is taking place known as ‘A-Round’, short for, Asakusa Around. Sixty-nine different stalls, cafés and galleries have signed up for the event. I am fortunate enough to have been invited along for a small walking tour, hosted by my friend, local resident, and Japan expert, Gomez. We meet up at noon, and a group of five, including me, set off on foot to explore some of the rich Asakusa history, and to get a feel for some old Japanese Culture.

We wander the backstreets tucked away behind Sensō-ji Temple; an area slightly out of the way, and not commonly visited by tourists. Gomez takes us by his favorite Karaoke bar, “This bar stays open until 7am, I often visit here,” he informs us. We walk through an area that used to be heavily populated by geisha many years ago, and is now home to the geisha headquarters. Gomez tells us, “If you hang around this area at night, you might even see a real geisha!”

Our first real stop of the tour is a small leather shop. Hanging outside are snake skins, sea lion furs, crocodile leather, and boxes of leather scraps for sale; at very low costs. This shop, like the others participating in the event, has a blue banner outside with the words ‘A-Round’. All stores taking part display this sign, and are each having an open day of sorts; a nice way to increase trade and boost tourism.

Inside we are welcomed humbly, allowed to take photographs, and even given the opportunity to try a few things hands on. On the ceiling of the shop hangs a huge black leather crocodile skin. The shopkeeper tells us that it’s the largest single piece of leather in Japan; seven meters long. The store even breed their own crocodiles specifically for leather production.

The next stop is a café called, “Ameshin.” The shop has been open a little over a year, and is run by artist and craftsman, Shinri Tezuka. The café is all about candy. Candy flavoured drinks are served, and the spacious room is nicely decorated by candy in the shape of animals.

It turns out that the owner makes these sweet fish himself, and has recently gained popularity by showcasing his craftmanship at an aquarium in Nihombashi. Today, just for us, he will make a fish from scratch.

He starts by rolling a ball of soft hot candy in the palms of his hands, before forming it into a rough outline of a kingyo (goldfish). Next, using only his hands and a pair of scissors, Tezuka trims the candy to form the shape of the fin. As he models the sweet, his strong concentration makes him look like he’s in a trancelike state.

This traditional Japanese process is done at some speed. After just a few minutes, the outer part of the candy has started to harden, and soon it will be impossible to shape it any further. He finishes the kingyo off by paining it with a natural pigment, before adding eyes to finish. “It is a beautiful kingyo made from candy. It shines as though it is alive.”

Next, we head down a street that once was a small stream, now completely dried up. The stream used to flow from the Sumida River, and run along the area behind Sensō-ji Temple, and beyond, toward the Yoshiwara red light district. Gomez tells us, “Many sailors would tell their wives that they were going by boat to the temple to pray, instead, they would continue down this stream, and into Yoshiwara.”

We head to the studio of a famous Japanese bag maker, Kichizo Yoshida. Founded in 1935, the company is known for big brand names like ‘Porter’. I learn that Yoshida died twenty years ago. Apparently he continued to make bags right up until the day he died. Today his legacy lives on, and the birthplace of his bags has been transformed into a modern looking gallery, juxtaposed by the original tools and machinery he used when he first started out. We meet his sister, who is taking care of business. She lets us take some photographs and gives us a chance to do some stitching. “Heart and Soul into every stitch,” she says.

Next, Gomez wants to show us two very different places. The first one is a shrine full of cats.

Most shrines in Japan represent something; perhaps a different god or some superstition. This one represents the harmony of marriage, through the medium of felines. Maneki Neko (fortune cats) are famous across the world, but they originated right here in Taitō-ku, at Imado Shrine.

The shrine is family run, and many generations ago, they made a living from making fox statues from the rich clay of the Sumida River. The family also had a pet cat. One day they fancied a change from the usual foxes, and decided to make clay cats, modeled in the shape of their pet. These cats are what are known today as fortune cats, and are seen outside many restaurants, and in some small businesses, often signifying a successful future.

The cat with the black spot, I am told, is male. Nowadays, people visit this shrine to hope for prosperity in marriage. Couples visit here before they are wed, and buy a circular piece of wood with two fortune cats engraved on one side. They write a message on the back, and attach it to a tree.

After getting married, the couples return and attach a second wooden plate to the original, to seal the marriage and receive good fortune. There are so many trees and so many wooden messages hanging here, that I can only assume that every man and woman in Tokyo has visited this shrine, and is subsequently now married.

After the shrine, we visit Matsuchiyama Shōten; a fourteen hundred year old Buddhist temple that sits at the top of a large hill. The temple is so high up that it even boasts its own cable car to help people reach the top. The hill famously appeared overnight, as if by magic; then, a huge golden dragon appeared from heaven and landed on the hill. This event is somehow connected to a certain root vegetable; the radish.

Usually at a temple, a small donation of coins is gratefully accepted, however, here they only accept donations of radish. The people inside the temple are worshiping radishes. You can even buy radishes here at a small stall near the entrance for ¥500 each; just in case you left yours in the supermarket. I discover that the radish is a symbol of health, family harmony, and heavenly golden dragons.

Next we wander back into Asakusa, to Hatch; a small coffee shop with four floors of empty gallery space above, and a lovely rooftop terrace. The gallery was supposed to be filled with paintings, but the owner got drunk and forgot to prepare. Instead of buying a coffee and admiring the artwork, we leave, slightly disappointed.

Our final stop of the tour is by the Sumida River, in a large exhibition space close to the Azuma Bridge. Inside there are many small stands, each selling different leather products. The one shop that interests me the most, is a shop selling leather artwork. The designer tells us that one piece of work takes three months to complete. All hand etched using a soldering iron, he sits, burning detail into leather.

The piece above depicts the Sanja Matsuri; an annual festival held in Asakusa. His art comes with a pricey ¥300000 tag. He’ll be waiting until the cows come home to get that kind of money…

The artist tells us he wants to spread the joy of Japan to the rest of the world. He is selling some lovely leather iPhone cases for ¥12000; the detail is delightful, and they would make an excellent souvenir. He takes a photograph of our group, clearly humbled that we took the time to talk to him. After that, the tour concludes, and we each go our separate ways.

On my way home, I head through the area that we had walked previously today. A geisha in full makeup darts past me; her wooden shoes clanking on the hard pavement. I am stunned. This is actually the first time I have ever seen a practicing geisha freely wandering around; other times I have seen them, they have been part of an event or exhibition. It appears that Gomez was right about this area.

After a few short minutes, I hear the sound of more wooden shoes on concrete, and find that a second geisha is walking down the street. She moves elegantly but very fast, and although I take a fair few photographs, for some reason, they all turn out looking like a blur. Seconds after spotting her, she has floated away like an incredible ghost.

Read the next part of my Journey in Japan, where I experience the joys of live Hallowe’en music, enjoy a beautiful sunset, and meet a sumo wrestler with an appetite for tequila, by clicking here.

Or alternatively, click here to begin the journey from part one.

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