Today, we again woke up early in the morning, and we spent most of those early hours writing our blog entries, after our customary spiritual study and meditation. Once we completed and posted our pieces, we dressed and headed out for a cold and overcast day of exploration.
Our first destination today was the cultural opposite of yesterday’s journey to trendy Harujuku and prosperous but on-sale Aoyama – we headed to Asakusa, the neighborhood most reminiscent of Edo (old, traditional) Tokyo.
Asakusa is dominated by the Sensoji Temple complex, Tokyo’s oldest and most popular temple, whose history dates back to 628 AD. The temple itself has been destroyed and rebuilt several times since then, the most recent due to the firebombing of Tokyo by Western forces in 1945. This latest incarnation, although in appearance just like the previous ones, is made almost entirely of metal and concrete, with very little wood, probably to maximize its durability, though this is just a guess on my part.
Asakusa initially grew up as a temple town, spreading out around Sensoji beginning in the seventh century, but as merchants became more prosperous, they demanded more diverse forms of entertainment, and Asakusa was by the early 19th century the main entertainment district of Edo Tokyo, featuring Kabuki and Bunraku theatres, restaurants, shops, and quite possibly, more sensuous diversions as well.
The lane leading straight to Sensoji is called Nakamise Dori, and it is very different than the approaches to temples that I’ve seen elsewhere in the East, which are lined with sellers of religious artifacts, candles, prayer flags, and the like. Since the late 17th century, Nakamise Dori has contributed to the carnival atmosphere in Asakusa, with its hundreds of tiny shops selling crafts, masks, fans, kimonos, sweets of every description, barking toy dogs – if you can imagine it, it’s probably sold somewhere in the maze of narrow streets and covered shopping arcades in and around Nakamise Dori!
Just outside of Nakamise Dori, we visited a tiny traditional restaurant for a late breakfast of soba noodles with a few pieces of shrimp tempura. This wonderful, family-run restaurant, with perhaps a half-dozen tables, did not offer tea on its menu. Instead, we were brought the hot water that had just been used to boil the soba noodles! It was delicious, very delicately flavored, without a hint of starch or oil from its use in the cooking pot just moments before. The customers’ use of tobacco in this soba shop had been going on for so many years that it was now soaked deep into the walls, floor, and ceiling, a rich, almost sweet smell with complexity and depth – quite pleasant, actually, even for a non-smoker!
Just down the street from this soba shop, we stopped outside another tiny restaurant, where the cook was steaming buns, using stacks of wooden steamers over boiling water, right at streetside, and selling these buns as fast as she could make them! We went inside, and enjoyed a wonderful dessert, as these were traditional Japanese sweet buns, filled with delicious sugared bean paste, rather than the salty buns we have often seen made streetside in China. Here we were able to enjoy cups of tea with our sweet steamed buns, along with tiny but rich scoops of homemade ice cream, available in vanilla, green tea, red bean, or yuzu (citron) flavors.
As the day progressed, the weather turned a bit colder, so we left delightful Asakusa, and went by subway to the Shinjuku Metro Station, the busiest commuter station in all of Japan. There is a huge shopping district inside and outside of the station, and just down the street was our first destination of the late afternoon, the huge Kinokuniya Book Store, where Tali wanted to look for illustrated Japanese art books. There were eight floors of books in Kinokuniya, so many that it was actually hard to find exactly what she was looking for, but after an hour or so, we emerged victorious!
Just a few steps away from Kinokuniya was the even larger Takashimaya Times Square Department Store, our next stop. Most of the department stores in Tokyo feature not only clothes and housewares, but also food, and we wanted to sample some of the many delicacies on offer in the combination supermarket and delicatessen that occupies the entire ground floor level of Takashimaya.
This part of the store was packed with eager shoppers, listening to the shouted pleas of the dozens and dozens of salespeople, many offering free samples, or announcing sale prices, as it was getting closer to the store’s eight o’clock closing. We wandered around – everything looked so delicious! – before selecting a few items to take back to the hotel with us for a small dinner.