text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Many Japanese –among them my wife- can’t quite understand why in my mind “Tokyo” means first and foremost “Asakusa”. Among the comments I often hear, the most common are that “it’s too touristy”, that “it’s too old-fashioned”, that “there’s nothing more to it than Sensoji” and that “it’s not a place for young people”; older people (actually, quite older people) who understand something more just shake their heads nostalgically (and with the melancholy that often goes hand in hand with nostalgia) and simply say “Asakusa is not what it was”. This last comment is the only one I can’t refute; first because I haven’t personal knowledge (since the Asakusa they mean ended many years before I was born) and second because from what I’ve read (by Japanese and non-Japanese) it must have indeed been something special.
This doesn’t mean that today’s Asakusa is dead, though. Tourists are not a problem for me since everyone who knows even a little history knows that Asakusa has been “touristy” for at least half a millennium, while its old-fashion ambience is the perfect counter-balance for a city like Tokyo, filled with ultra-modern and inhumanly fast parts. In Asakusa, time has stopped; or better, it has remained floating in the 1950’s or the 1930’s or, depending on where you are in the 1830s or the 1730’s. And this doesn’t seem to bother its people, the people who live and work there, often in jobs related to tourism but equally often in jobs related mostly to locals. The only things needed to see this side of Asakusa is a pair of good feet, time and good will.
Asakusa is the capital of the shitamachi, the downtown of old Tokyo; and this role still echoes in the area around Sensoji, Tokyo’s oldest temple as well as in the narrow alleys with the small shops, the workshops and the wooden houses with the flower-pots in their windows that spread quite far from it. It is the area where the word “Edo”, the name of old Tokyo and keyword for an urban culture older than the ones in Europe is everywhere and blends with the 1920’s and the 1930’s, when Asakusa’s cabaret and music-halls could stand next to the ones in Paris and New York. When most people talk about “classical Japanese culture”, they mean the culture of the samurai and the stylized sophistication of the emperor’s court in Kyoto. But what is really worthwhile in Japanese culture, human, alive, colorful and juicy, sprang from the womb called Asakusa.
(*) With gratitude to Sawamura Sadako –and Donald Richie.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.
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