By Lucy Birmingham
"From Abacus to Zori: Shopping in Asakusa"
On small side streets around the Kaminarimon gate, Sensoji temple, and Asakusa-jinja shrine are a wealth of shops run by proprietors who are keeping the area's craft traditions alive. A day (or more!) spent poking through their fascinating establishments is superbly rewarding. On these pages we highlight a half-dozen of our favorites, mapped on pages 150 and 151.
Look up at Asakusa’s famous Kaminarimon Gate and you will see one of the most dramatic and significant chochin (paper lanterns) in Japan. The big, red, round lantern bearing the characters for kaminari (thunder) and mon (gate), symbolizes light at the entry to Sensoji temple's sacred compound. For centuries, iterations of this traditional paper and bamboo form have bee carried at the head of formal processions, and to this day smaller versions warmly light entrances to the area's homes, restaurants, temples and shrines.
At 300 years old, Yamazaki Chochin is the oldest lantern-making shop in Asakusa. It is run by 35-year-old Norio Yamada, whose family has overseen the place for eight generations. He continues the tradition despite the long, tedious hours working alone, minimal pay and the allure of a 21st century job around the corner. But Yamada is a popular man in this dwindling art with constant demand. In fact, he's so busy that he can barely keep up with all the curious visitors, inquiries, and order-made requests.
His skillful drawing plus the shop's long history have made Yamazaki Chochin probably Japan's number-one maker of order-made laterns. You can see Yamada's fine painting technique on the lanterns hanging in his shop. He paints names of places, organizations, companies and families in bold black characters along with colorful trademarks or insignia. Foreign customers consider the lanterns unique souvenirs to display at home and used as lighted ornaments for parties.
In Asakusa, chochin are still an important cultural tradition. Every year, Yamada paints lanterns for events and festivals. He is a young member of the prestigious group of venerated craftsmen who serve Sensoji temple and its adjunct, Asakusa-jiinja shrine. Before the Sanja Matsuri, New Years, 7-5-3 Festival for children and even weddings, Yamada must sometimes close his shop to complete his orders. "It takes a lot of patience to be in this business," says Yamada with a smile. "But it is an honor to serve the people of Asakusa."
With the flick of a Bunsendo fan, you can feel the breezes of history, fine craftsmanship, art and style. If you’ve ever been to a kabuki performance it’s very likely that you saw one of the elegant folding fans called sensu, crafted and hand painted by Osamu Arai, fourth-generation owner of the famous 120-year-old fan shop, Bunsendo. Arai is a personal friend of kabuki stars Tamasaburo, Kanzaburo, and Mitsugoro for whom he has created fans used in numerous performances.
The shop also specializes in fans called maiougi (fans for traditional Japanese dance like Nihon buyo) and fans called chuukei used in Noh theater. The simple yet chic designs seen on these fans are Bunsendo’s trademark, quite different from the brightly patterned designs of many other shops and particularly representative of the lovely wabi-sabi aesthetic in traditional Japanese arts. The price of a fan reflects the skill and experience of the artist more than the quality of the washi paper layers and bamboo handle and frame.
Inside the shop, on the first street west of Nakamise-dori, you'll see a bustle of activity with customers from around the world. “When I had exhibitions in Vienna, Budapest and Italy,” explains Arai, “I didn’t bring the brightly decorated fans that are usually considered appealing to nonJapanese. I brought my own simpler designs which turned out to be very popular. Foreign tastes for Japanese things are changing and refining."
With its long history and location in the heart of Asakusa, Bunsendo, like many other shops in the area, maintains a close relationship with Sensoji temple. During the Sanja Matsuri in May, Arai's fans are sold at Asakusa-jinja shrine. Especially for the festival he makes a unique, pure white type of Busendo fan to be used by the helmsmen shouldering the omikoshi (portable Shinto shrines). His fans are also distributed as gifts during the yearly ochugen (summer gift-giving season).
An eye-catching 2-meter jumbo abacus leaning against the front window of Yamamoto Soroban offers the first clue to the shop's products. Even if you don't know how to use a soroban (abacus), it's fun to look at the types offered and learn about this amazing calculating device. Hiromi Iwasaki, whose family opened the shop 70 years ago, speaks excellent English and often helps her mother with foreign customers. "Many are computer experts or engineers," explains Iwasaki. "They're really interested in learning about very elemental methods of calculating from long ago. Many foreigners buy abacuses as souvenirs, but engineers will buy for their research."
It's hard to imagine that in the hands of someone highly trained, this simple-looking assembly is capable of calculating faster than an electronic calculator. As in martial arts, there are established ranks of soroban skill. "Masters have their own abacus in their mind," says Iwasaki. "The left brain hemisphere works very rapidly."
Introduced from China in the 1500's, the abacus was required learning in schools and a common tool for businesses until the days of electronic calculators and computers. Considered a good tool for developing the brain, the abacus is still taught in most primary schools. Each bead is counted as a digit. With the standard 23-digit variety you can add, subtract, multiply and divide. More complicated calculations are possible with more digits. In shops and restaurants in Asakusa today, you often see both an abacus and a calculator next to the cash register. Older staff members often prefer to quickly calculate your bill with the click of the soroban.
The quality of the craftsmanship determines the price. "You can tell how well an abacus is made by the clicking sound of the beads during calculations," remarks Iwasaki. "We're the only soroban shop left in Tokyo and one of the few in Japan. We know business will continue. During Sanja Matsuri there are too many customers and we actually have to close the shop. Many come to pray at Kannon-sama at Sensoji. Without her, we could not have our shop today."
When children play the Japanese game of "rock, paper, scissors" they use two fingers to mimic scissors cutting through the air. Most people imagine the type of modern scissors with two looped handles and two blades pivoting from a central fastener. But in Japanese homes you're likely to see a different type, called itokiri. Considered shears, they cut when you grasp the blades and press them together. They're usually made from layers of carbon steel and iron forged into one piece with razor-sharp points and blades. Just about indestructible, they don't warp or corrode. Traditionally used to cut thread, yarn and material, they are also perfect for cutting intricate designs in the Japanese art of paper cutting, and one variety is used to cut the hair of sumo wrestlers.
Itokiri are a particularly popular souvenir purchase at Kaneso, which has been making high-quality cooking knives, scissors and shears since 1873. Just a few minutes walk from Kaminarimon gate on the first side street of Nakamise-dori, it has been owned by five generations of the Hirano family. Soichi, the eldest of three brothers and the president, says, "We have quite a few foreign customers. Besides itokiri, old-style tsumekiri nail scissors and folding travel scissors are both popular."
Among Japanese however, it has traditionally been considered bad form and inauspicious to give scissors or knives as gifts. Because they are tools for cutting, they symbolize cutting off a relationship. "Nowadays though, it is not considered so inappropriate, even as a wedding gift," explains Hirano. "They are so practical and used by everyone."
Kaneso's Asakusa location has been a real advantage. It not only guarantees a regular flow of walk-in customers, but the shop is also perfectly situated to supply the many chefs, gardeners, and traditional artisans working in the area. "Gardeners from Sensoji temple buy their sheers here," says Hirano. "And the barbers from the Ryogoku sumo stables buy our sheers too."
Right in the heart of Japan's wholesale hakimono (traditonal footgear) center, Goudoh Hakimono is just a few minutes' walk from Sensoji temple. It's a treasure trove of traditional styles in a wide range of prices. Cramming the shelves are zori (thonged sandals), setta (thonged sandals for men), geta (wooden clogs), waraji (rough straw sandals), waragutsu (woven reed snow boots), jikatabi (spit-toed canvas boots with rubber soles), stilt-like clogs worn by the oiran (high-class prostitutes of the Edo Period), and much more. Quality is unusually high. If you don't see what you want in stock, you can place a custom order for the style and size you need, even if your foot is of the jumbo variety. One of the three-generation Tanaka family sales staff will also help you choose from catalogues.
Weave your way through the packed aisles and you might be lucky to find the jovial, sprightly 90-year-old owner, Toru Tanaka. He started Goudoh Hakimono in 1940, surviving air raids, the fires that destroyed Asakusa, and economic downturn. A tough survivor of his generation, Tanaka typifies the generous, hard-working, no-nonsense Asakusa personality.
His shop is one of Japan's biggest suppliers of zouri for Buddhist and Shinto priests, kabuki actors, and the Toei and Shochiku movie companies. "This area has had a long relationship with show-business people," explains Tanaka. "Probably every other day we get someone in here ordering zori for the samurai actors in an old period movie." And his Japan-wide sales of zori for use in festivals like Asakusa's famed Sanja Matsuri are enormous.
"When I started the company everyone wore geta and zori practically from birth to death. Only soldiers wore shoes. So demand has certainly decreased." Tanaka reminisces. "But there is still a need for the industry. With thanks to Kannon-sama, Sensoji temple and our location here in Asakusa we will certainly continue to prosper."
"Nowadays for most Japanese, a tenugui is just a throw-away cotton towel," explains Kawakami Keiji, the spry 88-year-old owner of Fujiya Tenugui who opened his Asakusa shop in 1950. "Really though, the beautiful and durable stencil dyed patterns and images make this an artistic craft," he states with well-deserved confidence and a friendly stare from his distinctive oversized tortoise-shell glasses. "It is the only craft in Japan that is pure Japanese," he adds with pride.
Displayed on the walls of the lovely small shop is a fabulous array of designs, from bold and graphic to intricate and subtle. Faces of famous kabuki actors, scenes from kabuki plays, images of portable shrines carried during Sanja Matsuri, Sensoji temple's famous pagoda, and examples of the colorful battledores (wooden paddles) sold during the Asakusa Battledore Fair (Hagoita- ichi) — all these clearly show Fujiya Tenugui's deep connection with Asakusa's history and dramatic annual events. Also displayed are typical flora and fauna seen in traditional Japanese artistic and cultural themes. 2006 is the Year of the Dog in the old Oriental calendar, so Kawakami has designed several tenugui with cute and eye-catching dogs.
There is one particularly interesting tenugui picturing the many traditional styles of tenugui worn on the head. If tied tightly as a strip around the crown of the head it is called a hachimaki. You see it worn with panache by the portable-shrine carriers during the Sanja Matsuri and often by students preparing for an exam because it is believed to strengthen the spirit.
Kawakami works with his son, Chihiro, who has helped expand the tenugui styles and audience. Transformed as noren (doorway curtain), tablemats, hats, bags and even as a framed work of art, the very versatile, beautiful and easy-to-pack tenugui make perfect souvenir gifts for their many foreign customers. Chihiro often does tenugui exhibitions abroad and he and his father have published two impressive books with English translations.
The elder Kawakami is working hard to revitalize historic tenugui patterns seen in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and also those originally painted by Santo Kyogen (1761-1816) who developed tenugui into an art form away from its original use as a give-away insignia towel during theatrical performances. Chihiro prefers more modern subjects with a style quite different from his father's, and yet the two are complimentary.
Their work is beautiful blend of traditional craft technique and artistic application with old and modern themes, so representative of the spirit and culture of Akasaka.