Every once in a while, the Japanese have to remind themselves that they’re Japanese. We feel the need to reconfirm that we are part of a long and enduring traditional culture — one which includes kimono, samurai, ninja, eels on rice, and other weird items. Many like to pretend that these particular oddities have nothing to do with being a modern Japanese, they prefer to believe that their culture begins with Studio Ghibli and ends with AKB48. But, when our guard is down, few of us are immune to the call of old Nippon. It goes straight to our hearts and stirs us to action — and I’m not just talking about visiting lofty noh performances or taking part in intricate tea ceremonies. When the Japanese hear the call, where do they go? More often than not, we haul ourselves over to Asakusa, and join the hordes of foreign tourists soaking up the culture, gawking at the sights and stuffing themselves with treats. We can’t help it — it’s in our blood.
Even before the advent of the Tokyo Skytree, Asakusa had been in a tourism league of its own. From the time when Tokyo was called Edo (1603-1868), right up until the early 2000s, Asakusa was famous for three things: cheap souvenirs, cheap booze and not-so-cheap-but-still-affordable sex. For centuries, these three things have been thrown into the blender with various Japanese traditions, and the resulting goo has emitted an irresistible glow of phoney authenticity.
To its credit, Asakusa has always been the one district in Tokyo where the satisfaction of basic human desires preceded everything else. This is where Yoshiwara, a massive red-light district created in the 17th century and protected by the Tokugawa shogunate, remained open until systematic prostitution was outlawed in 1958. It’s where Japan’s first roller coaster opened in 1953 — a mere eight years after the nation’s World War II surrender — in a tiny amusement park called Hanayashiki. It’s the birthplace of a mysterious postwar liquor concoction called Denki Bran, which, amazingly, is still being produced. Try it at Kamiya Bar, a Western-style drinking spot founded in 1880. And then there’s the “unko biru” (poop building), the Asahi Beer headquarters designed by Philippe Starck, just across the bridge from Asakusa Station. Asakusa is also where countless comedians launched their careers, including Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, in tiny basement joints no bigger than a garage.
The latest thing in this part of town? Aiseki pubs, where women can drink themselves silly free of charge, as long as they consent to sit at the same table with male customers and engage in “friendly” conversation (according to a male customer who told me what was going on).
Tourism is to Asakusa what swimming is to Michael Phelps. Forget the uppity snobbishness that permeates other Tokyo tourist spots — this town has always operated on the notion that every single traveler with a bit of cash should have a spanking good time, Asakusa-style. This is one place where it is still possible to get roaring drunk under a tattered awning for ¥2,000, as long as you’re not too picky about your surroundings (in barracks leftover from 1947, perhaps?), or picky about what is in your glass (distilled shōchū liquor spiked with sugar and food coloring) or on your plate (don’t ask).
For ¥3,000 you can also sit for hours inside Asakusa Engei Hall (www.asakusaengei.com) and giggle at the rakugo comedians or you can join the older ladies as they scream with delight at the oyama male actors, who are made up to look like sexy geisha on stage at the Mokubakan theater.
Ten years ago, Asakusa had a porn-and-yakuza movie theater and one of Tokyo’s oldest bowling alleys. Both were torn down, ostensibly for sanitary reasons. But the WINS branch — the Japan Racing Association’s off-track betting location thronged by the cigarette sucking, sake swilling down-and-outers — is still going strong. So is the Hanayashiki amusement park, whose main clientele, other than tourists, still consists of tattooed, yakuza foot soldiers and their families. Hanayashiki, by the way, has its very own pop idol group called “Aoi and Kaede” — two girls who tote three-stringed shamisen and sing about what a blast Asakusa is.
And now the town is taking it all to the next level: The walls that had separated Japanese tourists from foreign are coming down, as everyone realizes they are all equal under the roof of Nippon kitsch. Witness the way kimono and yukata (summer kimono) shops are crammed with young women of every nationality — including a good number of Japanese. They all have no idea how to wear the things, but no matter. For a fee, the staff will dress them, do their hair and throw in some make-up tips. Young women emerge from these shops in lurid clusters, swinging little cotton bags and posing for selfies. Local couples and families hire the handsome, bronzed rikisha boys, who give the complete Asakusa tour for ¥3,000 and are often conversant in Chinese, English and Japanese. They may even consent to getting a drink with you afterward — though no one’s making any promises.
As for food, open your mind and stomach to classic Asakusa fare such as unagi (eel), dojo (loach), cow and pig innards in all guises (including raw), sticky potatoes and even the abomination of Greenpeace: whale meat. For centuries, these foods have been partaken as libido enhancers. Both lone men and couples will eat them at local eateries before heading to a brothel or love hotel, which exist in abundance (the brothels have now become “Kyabakura” and “Soap Lands”). It should also be noted that Asakusa once had the highest number of clinics specializing in venereal disease in Japan, and there’s even a local temple (Jokanji) dedicated to consoling the spirits of deceased Yoshiwara prostitutes.
Political correctness is thrown out of the window here before it gets a chance to sit down. Apparently, even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe comes to one of the town’s famed 24-hour yakiniku (Korean barbecue) restaurants — where you can find grilled beef and cheap beer. I got this information from a local shoe store clerk who claims to have sat at a table next to him, and shook his hand at 2 a.m. one morning.
In Asakusa, “business comes first,” declares Matsuko Deguchi, whose family runs a souvenir and toy shop on the “Nakamise” shopping street leading to Sensoji Temple. At 75, she can remember the time when local shop owners in Asakusa spoke at least two foreign languages — Chinese and English, mostly — in order to converse with tourists and get them to open their wallets.
“If it wasn’t for World War II, Japan would have a booming international tourist industry by now,” said Deguchi. “As it is, we’re only just now learning the ropes.”
Everywhere you look, there are signs in Chinese, Korean and English, and, according to the Taito City Office (where Asakusa is located), there are plans to increase the number of public restrooms in Asakusa by 30 percent in the next four years to accommodate the rise in tourists. By the time the Tokyo Olympics roll around in 2020, Taito City hopes number of hostels with bilingual staff will have increased by 50 percent.
Deguchi says there is talk that high-end international brands such as Prada and Hermes are planning to open mini-boutiques on the Nakamise.
“Whatever helps the small Asakusa retailer will ultimately help Asakusa,” she says. “If people want to dress up in kimonos and buy Prada at the same time, then we have to help them do that. Don’t be squeamish and don’t be conservative. The Japanese care too much about what other people think.”
Deguchi doesn’t have to worry about that last item. In Asakusa, people are too busy dressing up in kimono, getting drunk before noon and gnawing on grilled squid to care.
Asakusa Station is a 15-minute train ride from Tokyo Station.
Nui. (www.backpackersjapan.co.jp/nuihostel) is a friendly, minimal hostel with clean dormitories, twin rooms and a well-stocked bar on the first floor.
The Gate Hotel Asakusa Kaminarimon (www.gate-hotel.jp/english) is a luxury hotel five-minutes walk from Sensoji Temple. Its rooftop terrace and location are hard to beat.
Food and drink
Kamiya Bar (www.kamiya-bar.com) is a reportedly one of the first Western-style bars in Tokyo. It’s famous for inventing a liquor concoction known as Denki Bran.
Nakasei (www.nakasei.biz) has been serving tempura in Asakusa since 1870 and is still one of the best tempura restaurants in town. Cobblestones lead to the entrance, and there’s even a carp pond outside.