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Plying the Crafts of Old Japan in Tokyo's Asakusa

May 21, 1989|LINDA L. LISCOM | Liscom is free-lance writer living in Nut Tree, Calif.

TOKYO — If you've got the idea that Tokyo is too Westernized, you've missed Asakusa--one of this city's riverside districts where merchants and craftsmen settled several hundred years ago.

Generations later, neighborhood artisans are still at it--weaving tatami mats, pounding copper, making arrows, fabricating lanterns, dying fabrics, carving wood, roasting rice crackers and molding tea cakes.

Nowhere in Tokyo is the spirit of old Japan more alive than Asakusa. Although most of the tour buses stop briefly in the area to visit Asakusa Kannon, the historic temple to the Buddhist goddess of compassion, the whole neighborhood is worth a day or more of exploration.

It's easy to time your visit for one of several dozen annual festivals: white heron dances, dragon dances, the courtesan pageant, bonsai festival and even a samba celebration.

Wandering the small streets of Asakusa, a visitor can appreciate the rich diversity of traditional Japanese life by poking through some of the old shops and mingling with the people.

While other tourists ply the slick department stores of uptown Tokyo, you can be browsing for the same exotic treasures sold in Edo times and meet the craftspeople--Tokyo citizens of at least three generations--who are keeping the flame of traditional arts alive.

Consider a tsuba at the swordsman's emporium (the decorative guard on a samurai sword) that you could use as a belt buckle or pendant.

Authentic Garments

Spend a little time in a shop that for six generations has specialized solely in handmade camellia wood combs. Or buy yourself an authentic festival outfit and knock them out at your next costume party.

Best of all, you can get to Asakusa easily on public transportation, either subway or river boat, and dine in a pleasant Japanese cafe for as little as $5 U.S., less if you settle for sushi from a fast-food vendor.

You can end your day with a long, soothing soak in the pristine hot pools of a public bath house from another era, Akebono-yu, for about $2.

If you want to stay in the neighborhood, there's the new Western-style Asakusa View Hotel and several ryokan (traditional Japanese inns).

The Kaminarimon Temple Gate is a good place to start your explorations. Just inside, the 1,000-foot lantern-lined promenade that leads to the temple challenges the senses.

Along the walkway, more than 100 stalls offer seaweed, samurai swords, oil paper umbrellas, fans, cutlery, kabuki wigs, kimono underwear, Edo toys--and wind-up rabbits blowing police whistles.

You can hear the thump and clatter as a ningyo-yaki baker turns roasting cakes from iron molds shaped like birds, pagodas and lanterns. In one shop you can buy both pet goods and ivory crafts--a rawhide chew for Fido alongside $500 chopsticks.

Surrounding the temple complex is a network of streets with small shops selling items that will stop conversation at home.

Safflower Lipstick

How about nightingale droppings for a beautiful complexion? For $8 you can buy a packet of them from the shop selling stage makeup and old-fashioned Japanese cosmetics.

At the same spot you can also consider safflower lipstick, sold as a metallic chartreuse cake in a porcelain sake cup.

At Miyamoto's, on the other side of Asakusa, check out the red lacquer lioness and lion-head masks used for New Year's dances. Red and white yak hair wigs, 39 inches long, complete the outfit.

It's a spectacular store, more like a museum, featuring Japanese percussion instruments, festival equipment and a magnificent display of mikose, the portable festival shrines, each one a year's work requiring seven specialized craftsmen.

Don't miss the splendid drum museum on the fourth floor, an exhibit of several hundred drums from the proprietor's private collection.

Perhaps most intriguing to the Western visitor is watching artisans at work producing the items that are uniquely Japanese.

For an introduction, stop in at the new traditional handicrafts center, a modest storefront displaying all the arts produced in that area. Along with familiar examples, you're sure to stumble across some craft you never knew existed.

For example, the objime , that slender cord that holds the kimono belt in place, is braided from hundreds of delicate hair-thin silk threads. Or kiri-kimekomi, a rare soft wood inlaid with silk and made into handsome boxes.

Japanese Joinery

Each weekend, an artist-in-residence spends an afternoon "on stage" demonstrating his work in the front window. Some of the old masters you'll meet here have been designated by the government as "living national treasures," such as Teizo Hashimoto, the last living Tokyo kite maker from Edo times.

On a recent afternoon, carpenter-furniture maker Tadashi Kimura worked on a small mulberry dresser demonstrating the art of Japanese joinery, perfectly interlocking joints without nails. It was more like watching a jeweler with a rare gem, as he worked with tiny pencil-erasure-size planes and other tools he had made.

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