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A corner of Tokyo that's a world removed

The Asakusa neighborhood is a calm retreat from the city's glitzy center. Its tourist draw began with two anglers' tale of a golden catch.

March 30, 2003|Kristin Johannsen | Special to The Times

Tokyo — Neon canyons, jaw-dropping fashion, futuristic skyscrapers, the electric pulse of one of the world's largest cities -- that's what draws many travelers here. Unfortunately, they're all things I detest. Japan's ultramodern cities aren't everyone's cup of tea, and living in Osaka some years ago taught me they weren't mine.

Instead, on a three-day visit last autumn, my husband, Kevin, and I went in search of an older, earthier Tokyo and found it in a cheerfully unfashionable neighborhood called Asakusa, in the city's northeast.

Asakusa has been devastated by fires, leveled by earthquakes and pounded by World War II bombs, but after each catastrophe, it was rebuilt. We found its real heritage -- its spirit -- thriving.

Asakusa sprang up as part of the "Low Town" in Edo (Tokyo's name in feudal times, from 1603 to 1868). Unlike the airy hills where samurai aristocrats lived, Low Town was the commoners' quarter -- poor, damp and crowded. Asakusa was home to the merchants and craftsmen who served the shogun, and it grew into a busy commercial center.

It all began with the temple of Kannon, so that's where Kevin and I went first.

According to legend, in 628 two brothers were fishing in the nearby Sumida River when they hauled up a gold statue in their nets. It was an image of Kannon, a revered Buddhist figure who hears the cries of the suffering. The local lord enshrined the image in his home, and before the city of Tokyo even existed, Kannon was drawing throngs of worshipers.

Today, as in the past, the Kannon Temple is Asakusa's bustling heart. We entered through Kaminari-mon, the massive wooden Thunder Gate, under a red lantern weighing nearly a ton. At the end of a long arcade, the main hall's tile roof soars skyward.

Inside, the thickly gilded altar is supposed to contain the statue found centuries ago, but its doors are always shut, so the truth is anybody's guess. What's indisputable is the people's devotion. As we watched, a kindly old monk blessed a small girl in a brilliant red kimono, accompanied by her family. Silver spangles shimmered in her hair when she bowed to offer incense.

Outside in the temple courtyard, Tokyo's skyscrapers felt agreeably remote. Worshipers bathed their faces in purifying incense smoke, and neighborhood housewives stopped to offer coins on their way home from grocery shopping. One elderly woman wandered about with a nonchalant calico cat perched on her shoulder.

Amulet shops did a brisk business selling prayers stitched in brocade pouches, and a rattling sound filled the air as visitors told their fortunes by shaking numbered sticks out of a metal cylinder. I considered trying it but concluded I didn't really want to know what the future held.

Because Kannon is the deity of compassion, the temple has long offered welfare programs to the neighborhood. It opened a hospital in 1910, which is supported by temple revenues, and it operates a kindergarten.

As we sat with pensioners feeding cracked corn to the pigeons, a class of 4-year-olds on their morning walk trooped by, irresistibly cute in matching yellow smocks.

Shopping and other pleasures

We were hardly the first foreigners attracted to the area. In 1880, the English missionary Isabella Bird described Asakusa in her book "Unbeaten Tracks in Japan":

"Just there, plenty of Tokyo life is to be seen, for near a shrine of popular pilgrimage there are always numerous places of amusement, innocent and vicious, and the vicinity of this temple is full of restaurants, teahouses, minor theaters and the resorts of dancing and singing girls."

Edo became Japan's capital in 1590, and Asakusa boomed when the city's "pleasure quarter" was relocated nearby in 1657 and visitors began stopping off here. Around the temple, a new entertainment district sprang up, along with shops to cater to pilgrims and revelers alike. Present-day Nakamise-dori, the covered arcade leading to the temple, jumbles everything Japanese, from the sublime to the tacky. The shop Sukeroku sells exquisitely detailed handmade miniatures of Edo-era characters: A dancer the size of my thumbnail cost $54.

A few doors down, rubber Godzillas went for $90, and a man in traditional indigo-dyed work clothes sat splitting kombu seaweed by hand. There are dealers in geisha wigs, oiled-paper umbrellas and kabuki theater makeup, but also mom-and-pop shoe and grocery stores. Kevin and I spent a happy couple of hours munching rice crackers, tripping over windup hamsters and trying on wooden geta sandals.

We especially enjoyed Adachiya, a supplier of traditional clothing for Shinto festivals. Its handsome cotton jackets come in sizes for toddlers through sumo wrestlers, and the block-printed headbands look like a fad just waiting to happen. The rice-straw sandals worn for processions horrified me. They were so unbearably rough I couldn't imagine walking three minutes in them, let alone three miles.

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