Travel | BACKSTREET STORIES

Up high on a rickshaw, new views of old Asakusa

In familiar territory, a guided tour can break fresh ground

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

Few places in Tokyo are as routinely crammed with enthusiastic visitors as the road that leads to Sensoji temple, in the Asakusa area of Taito Ward. The vibe of Nakamise-dori is unabashedly commercial and festive. Tourists bundled in bright rental kimonos walk under plastic seasonal decorations; hawkers tend stalls of souvenir knickknacks; and the air holds a mixture of sweet castella cake batter, tempura oil and incense wafting from the temple. It’s a dynamic dovetailing between the secular and the sacred.

The cherry blossoms and warm weather, however, can attract uncomfortable numbers of people. Today is just such a morning, with roiling crowds, kids crying and shopkeepers already irritable. For this reason, I’m finally inspired to try out a novel method of navigating the temple’s surrounds.

Jinrikisha (rickshaws) are a long-standing institution at Asakusa, lined up along the shopping streets near the huge red lantern at Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate). Though the shafu (drivers) are a handsome group, with legs to die for and walnut tans setting off winsome smiles, I have to admit I’ve always given them a pass. Rickshaws have seemed to me a luxury better suited to wedding couples and dandies with money to burn. Today, however, I decide to shell out, to satisfy curiosity and assuage claustrophobia.

I approach Tsunenobu Taira, 35, the “boss” dispatcher of Ebisuya, which he says is Asakusa’s largest jinrikisha company. “I’m not really a boss,” Taira admits, in nearly flawless English, “because I have a boss, and that boss has a boss, boss on boss, if you get what I mean?” I do. I ask him a bit about Ebisuya. “We’ve been in business for 27 years,” he says, with genuine pride. “We have about 120 drivers, including five women, and a fleet of 60 rickshaws.”

Historians quibble about the origins of jinrikisha but, at the very least, the name is Japanese, and it means “man-powered car.” Jinrikisha almost identical to today’s versions first hit the streets shortly after the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868) when the Tokugawa shogunate’s ban on wheeled conveyances was finally lifted. “Ebisuya’s modern two-wheelers are manufactured in Gifu Prefecture,” Taira tells me. “They cost about ¥1.6 million each.”

Multitasking: Tatsuhiro Takahashi looks back attentively while pulling a jinrikisha (rickshaw) in Asakusa.
Multitasking: Tatsuhiro Takahashi looks back attentively while pulling a jinrikisha (rickshaw) in Asakusa. | KIT NAGAMURA

Taira arranges for me to ride in one of the company’s newest rickshaws, a glossy enameled number named Maneki Neko (beckoning cat). It arrives with 21-year-old Tatsuhiro Takahashi at the yoke, in jikatabi (two-toed sock shoes with rubber soles), happi coat, black pants and a tightly tied obi belt. “The obi keeps everything together while I run,” he says in English. “If you see a guy with an open happi coat, like Taira, you know he’s a boss.” Taira smiles slightly ironically and leaves, talking into his cellphone.

Unlike most drivers, Takahashi’s skin is nearly as pale as mine. It’s partially genetics, he tells me, but I also discover that Takahashi only drives on weekends. “Weekdays, I’m at university,” he says, “majoring in chemistry.” Clearly, I’ve landed myself a smart car.

Signing on for a one-hour ride (a whopping ¥13,000), I worry aloud that Takahashi might find it challenging to run me around all that time. He laughs. “Not at all. The rickshaw are built to carry up to 250 kilograms, so if the customer’s rear fits in the seat, I can manage it,” he says, proffering his arm for a muscle check. Sure enough, it’s a steel girder coated in skin. Assuming his legs are in the same superfit condition, I start to clamber into the red velour of the chassis. Takahashi ducks in first and arranges two heat packets to warm the seat; Mercedes-Benz has nothing on this vehicle.

Takahashi spreads a reddish-pink blanket over me — “the color makes everyone look pretty,” he says — and fastens a seat belt around it. Then I get another blanket over all that. Once I’m snuggly tucked in, Takahashi whips away two wooden chocks that serve as the rickshaw’s parking brake.

Positioned inside the rickshaw’s yoke, Takahashi faces me. He then kneels down like a debutante doing the Texas dip, with his front leg stretched out straight, and lifts only the rickshaw handles. The rickshaw gently reclines, and it occurs to me that this is a moment of reckoning; one false move and someone could go flying. However, when Takahashi stand ups, it’s without altering the yoke’s or the cab’s position at all. This deceptively simple move is part of the training that usually takes drivers several months to master. “Each person has to learn at his or her own pace,” Takahashi says, but I gather that he took to the skill swiftly.

You can ride my car: Jinrikisha (rickshaws) as we know them today first appeared toward the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868).
You can ride my car: Jinrikisha (rickshaws) as we know them today first appeared toward the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868). | KIT NAGAMURA

This sets me at ease as we glide out into traffic. Because a rickshaw weighs about 80 kilograms, and an average car 20 times that, any collision would not go our way. Takahashi is hyperalert as we enter the busy thoroughfare near Kaminarimon. It’s not until we reach Orange-dori, a largely pedestrian avenue known for its reddish-yellow street paving, that Takahashi turns to chat with me as he propels us along.

At a gentle pace, we pass food stalls with plastic walls, the Plaza of Stars, where Japanese celebrities have had their handprints immortalized like those in Hollywood, and women standing around with owls on their heads advertising a bird cafe. With the rickshaw hood down and from the vehicle’s height, I realize I can see a great deal more of the street than if I were at a pedestrian level. Responsive and attentive, Takahashi also slows down whenever something grabs my notice.

As we turn onto Denpoin-dori, a street perpendicular to Sensoji’s main approach, I spy on a building roof a larger-than-life figure of Nezumi Kozo (Rat Boy). Nezumi Kozo was the nickname of Nakamura Jirokichi (1797-1831), a thief famous for supposedly stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. “He’s my best friend,” says Takahashi of the Edo Period Robin Hood. How is that? “We both steal,” he says. My eyebrows shoot up. “Nezumi Kozo steals your money, but I steal your heart,” he quips, and we shoot off down the street at a faster clip.

The hardest skill to master as a shafu is to entertain and inform clients with banter that is, literally, a “running commentary.” As we float along, the simple suspension system of the rickshaw cancelling out all the bumps in the road, Takahashi introduces the small comedy and rakugo theaters of the Rokku-dori area, and then the retro amusement park Hanayashiki.

Though he clearly knows the area well, I quiz Takahashi on where the earliest cherry blossoms can be found in Asakusa. “Coming right up,” he says. We round the next corner, and there, in front of the aptly named Sakura Hostel Asakusa, is a precocious bloomer.

We wend through the area north of Sensoji, past several gritty hole-in-the-wall bars and a few love hotels that indicate our proximity to the old Yoshiwara brothel district. Takahashi then heads down Kannonura-dori, home to a few active geisha ryotei (inns). This area is also near Saruwakacho, where Edo’s kabuki theaters, the Nakamuraza and the Ichimuraza, were required to move during the mid-1800s, in a governmental effort to discourage immoral pursuits such as watching theater.

Gods and gardens: Tucked behind Matsuchiyama Shoden, said to be one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Tokyo, is a stunning vertical garden.
Gods and gardens: Tucked behind Matsuchiyama Shoden, said to be one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Tokyo, is a stunning vertical garden. | KIT NAGAMURA

I worry that Takahashi must be tiring (“not,” he retorts), but there is one last place he insists I should see. We pull in at Matsuchiyama Shoden, said to be the one of the oldest temples in Tokyo, established close to the year 600. A lovely weeping cherry tree just starting its bloom makes an elegant arch over the rickshaw as I climb out.

The oldest Buddhist temples often share real estate with Shinto shrines, and the grounds of Matsuchiyama Shoden, constituent of Sensoji, also includes a shrine. Takahashi points out the curious motifs repeated on the temple’s lanterns, water basins and stone steps: giant daikon radishes and drawstring pouches.

The radishes, I learn, are meant to represent the buried and ignorant parts of our minds. Offering a daikon to the temple’s deity, Daisho Kangiten, a Japanese incarnation of the Hindu god Ganesha, helps purify one’s thoughts and bring health and harmony to one’s relationships. The pouches are meant to symbolize the gift of prosperity in business.

Unearth your ... vegetables?: At Matsuchiyama Shoden temple, daikon radishes represent the ignorant part of one
Unearth your … vegetables?: At Matsuchiyama Shoden temple, daikon radishes represent the ignorant part of one’s mind. | KIT NAGAMURA

Takahashi and I elect to instead light incense at the temple’s statue of Kannon, dating back to the 1600s, believed to assist one in finding success in life.

When Takahashi shows me a stunning pocket garden tucked behind the temple, with its vertical green plummet down to a deep clear carp pond, it seems that Kannon has already answered my prayers for a good life.

The day is still young, but despite Takahashi’s offer to drop me off anywhere in Tokyo (even Disneyland, if I so desire and have the means) I gratefully thank him for the most pleasant journey, and descend from my privileged perch. As Takahashi runs to return the rickshaw to its parking spot, waving as he goes, I can see success close on his heels, too.

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