From Play to Pray: a walk through Tokyo’s largest entertainment district, which was once filled with Geisha, courtesans, writers, artists and actors.
Pearl Harbor Attack had awakened a sleeping giant. The tide had turned against the Axis forces. Dresden and Hamburg firebombing sent alarm bells ringing. In spite of the looming fear of losing the war, Japanese were looking for ways to rejoice. And there couldn’t be a better time than Sakura (Cherry blossom). During the day, Asakusa residents would steal some time from their war duties to watch Sakura bloom, shop at Nakamise Street, relish the freshly baked Ningyouyaki and pray for their protection at Sensō-ji shrine. In the evening, Kabuki theatre and Geisha shows would be their escape.
This was routine in Entertainment District of Asakusa until the fateful night of 9th March 1945. Operation Meetinghouse took place on the nights of March 9 and 10, 1945, where US bombers dropped 1,665 tons of bombs on the wooden city of Tokyo. Firebombing burst the city into flames. Wood and paper constructions fueled the blazing fire. Strong breeze whipped the individual blazes into a firestorm.
Canals boiled, Sumida River ran red with blood, water bodies became boiling hotpots where people were simply boiled alive, bridges fell, metal melted and everything, whether living or non-living, burst spontaneously into flames. Tokyo was flattened and burnt to ashes. Hell could have not been hotter than Tokyo, where temperatures reached 1,800 degrees. As per the records, 105,400 died, 125,000 were injured and 1.5 million lost their homes. The US Firebombing killed more people than the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki five months later.
71 years later Tokyo has bounced back in a more glamorous avatar. Asakusa got a new face-lift. Shrines got reconstructed, markets got buzzing with customers and Asakusa became a major tourist attraction. But one thing died in 1945 – The Entertainment District of Asakusa. The home of Kabuki and Geisha became a mass grave.
When I got an opportunity to join the Asakusa Tour with Context Travel, I was unaware about this reality. I didn’t know the historical and cultural relevance of the area. Those two hours with the Context Tour guide and the rest of the day was an eye-opener for me. Come lets walk.
On 7th November 2016, I met my guide and five other travelers at Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center. Elena, the Russian guide based out of Japan, was like a walking talking encyclopedia. She took us to the rooftop of the building from where we got a bird’s eye view of the entire area. She shared stories, which I bet even Google wouldn’t know.
We crossed the road to visit Sensōji Temple, Tokyo’s largest and oldest Buddhist temple. Kaminarimon or “Thunder Gate” welcomed us with its giant lantern and statues of guardian gods Raijin (god of thunder) and Fujin (god of wind). As per Elena, it was first built in 942 AD but was destroyed numerous times and the last reconstruction happened after WWII.
Crossing the Thunder Gate we arrived at the 250 meter shopping street of Nakamise that led us to the temple. The Nakamise Street was lined with 90 shops on both sides selling souvenirs and snacks. The shops have been there since 17th century and are run by the same family for generations. We tried Ningyouyaki while our ears were glued to the interesting stories Elena was narrating.
We were left awestruck at the end of the arcade where Hōzōmon Gate stood majestically with a giant straw sandal (waraji) hung up on one side. Ferocious guardian god couple guarded the gates of the shrine.
We were now at the perennially busy Kannondō (Kannon Hall) of Sensō-ji shrine, with a sea of worshipers wafting incense over themselves, praying and donating to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. The shrine is said to be here since 628 AD, although it has been refurbished many a times.
Before we started our walk, Elena had told us that if we are lucky we might see Japanese families in traditional attire celebrating 7-5-3 festival at the shrine. Shichi-go-san festival (7-5-3) is celebrated for children aged 7, 5 & 3 and hence the name. The official date is November 15th, but as it’s not a national holiday most families hold their festivities in the nearest weekends. Usually a purification rite and the reciting of Shinto prayers are performed that day. Most girls wear Kimonos while boys come in Haori. We were lucky to catch not just one but many families dressed in their traditional attire.
We spent some time visiting other shrines like Gojūnoto (5-Story Pagoda allegedly containing some of the ashes of the Buddha), Asakusa Jinja (a Shinto shrine devoted to protecting the Buddhist temple in a typically Japanese arrangement) and Chingodo Shrine (dedicated to the Japanese raccoon god tanuki).
After our spiritual tour, it was time to see the cultural side of Asakusa. Our next pitstop was Rokku Entertainment District. It used to be Tokyo’s leading entertainment district before the war, hosting Japan’s first cinema and more. However, the district has not regained its former popularity after the war. Today, Rokku offers attractions such as Rakugo theaters, cinemas and Pachinko Parlors. Most of the visitors are elderly Japanese because they have money, time and interest. But my eyes were searching for Kabuki and Geishas, which were nowhere to be seen.
We were passing through areas, which had everything from Department stores to traditional Japanese Houses to animal and bird cafes. The place for which Elena was super excited was Kappabashi-dori, the kitchen capital of Tokyo. Kappabashi is a one kilometer long street lined by shops selling amazing kitchenware items priced at attractive prices. This is the whole sale market from where Japan buys its kitchenware and Fake food Samples along with other essential items. Wish I had enough cash and luggage space!
Our two hour Asakusa Tour ended at the Kappabashi-dori market. This walk had stoked my interest in knowing Japanese culture more. Sensing my interest Elena adviced me to take the Sumida River cruise to Hama-Riku Garden to attend a tea-house ceremony and watch a Kabuki Theater. These were experiences beyond words, which I’ll share in my next post.
Hope you enjoyed virtually Exploring Asakusa, the Entertainment District of Tokyo.
If you are planning to visit Asakusa do try out Context Travel. They will show you areas which even locals might not be able to.
Don’t forget to read the travel tips to make the best out of your Asakusa Tour.