After arriving in Tokyo late on Friday evening and then spending the day with Amit getting oriented around his neighbourhood, we struck out on our own on Sunday afternoon while Amit had the day to himself catching up on some overdue work. He suggested we visit Asakusa on the Sunday of Golden Week to see the crowds visiting the popular shrine there.
The Tokyo subway system map is a mass of colours and lines and names but it is actually really easy to use. We got on the Ginza line near Amit’s residence and rode to the end of the line, watching all the families coming and going from the train car. People seemed relaxed and out to enjoy the holiday. When we left the station and found ourselves alone on unfamiliar streets it was a bit daunting. All the signs were in Japanese and even though we were very close to a major cultural landmark, there didn’t seem to be any clear indication of its location. I had a Tokyo City Guidebook (boy was I wishing I had purchased a Lonely Planet Tokyo instead of a Lonely Planet Kyoto. I followed the map as best I could and then while we were studying the book, a kindly Japanese gentleman stopped to ask if he could help us. I showed him where we wanted to go and he had us turn around and retrace our steps back to the subway exit. Now we were really confused. We decided to just wander and enjoy the area and eventually we would stumble on the shrine.
We saw huge crowds down one street in particular. It seemed like a major shopping street and with so many people out for the holiday we decided to avoid the street altogether. Little did we know that this was the entrance to the shrine, the shops were built hundreds of years ago to sell memorabilia to the pilgrims and the shops are still thriving, although the trinkets are vastly different now. After wandering away from this street, we ended up skirting the park where the pagoda and shrines are located but we found an interesting area full of small drinking bars. People were all watching horse-racing on television and most of the bars were so full that people were sitting on benches and tables outside but craning their necks to see the racing on the televisions mounted high on the walls inside. We were getting a little hungry and the smell of yakitori (meat on skewers) cooking on the grills was mouth-watering. At last we found three seats at one outdoor table so we joined the bettors already there and ordered draft beer and meat skewers. It was heavenly.
I learned later that gambling is illegal in Japan but that betting on horse racing is allowed. This explained the intensity of the activity on this little street. The people at the table seemed amazed that some foreigners would sit with them and eat and drink. They didn’t speak any English, but somehow indicated that if we wanted to bet, they could somehow help us out. We raised our beers and thanked them, but passed on the gambling. A couple of hours passed in this way, watching the people eating and betting and watching the people passing by on the lane. Thank goodness Audrey is a people-watcher like we are. We saw a side of Japan that most people rushing around seeing historical sites never see.
We would have stayed much longer, but it was time to get up and move around and perhaps see the shrine before dark. Farther along the street we came upon a pachinko parlour. Here is a description of this incredible place from Wikipedia:
Pachinko (パチンコ) is a Japanese gaming device used for amusement and prizes. Pachinko machines were first built during the 1920s as a children's toy, then emerged as an adult pastime in Nagoya around 1930. All of Japan's pachinko parlors were closed down during World War II, but re-emerged in the late 1940s and have remained popular since then. Although pachinko machines were originally strictly mechanical, modern pachinko machines are a cross between a pinball machine and a video slot machine.
Pachinko parlors share the reputation of slot machine dens and casinos the world over - garish decoration; over-the-top architecture; a low-hanging haze of cigarette smoke; the constant din of the machines, music, and announcements; and flashing lights.
The winnings are in the form of more balls, which the player may either use to keep playing or exchange for tokens, vouchers, or a vast array of prizes. Some prizes are as simple as pens or cigarette lighters; others can be electronics, bicycles, 50 cc scooters or other items. Under Japanese law, cash cannot be paid out directly for pachinko balls, but there is usually a small exchange center located nearby where players can conveniently exchange their winnings for cash. This is tolerated by the police because, on paper at least, the pachinko parlors that pay out goods and tokens are independent from the exchange centers that trade the tokens in for cash. Some pachinko parlors may even give out vouchers for groceries at a nearby supermarket.
As this description points out, the atmosphere is bright, loud and smoky. In fact, the noise of the steel balls clattering through the machines and the gamers loading more balls into the machines was deafening. We went in only a small way and then found we had seen enough. This type of gambling didn’t seem to have a social element to it at all; in fact I thought the people looked rather lonely sitting in front of the machines staring at the balls dropping away. Though we didn’t gamble with the horseracing crowd, at least they looked like they were having a good time and enjoying each other’s company.
I jumped ahead without telling you a little about the area. Asakusa is the center of Tokyo's shitamachi, "low city", one of Tokyo's few districts to have preserved the atmosphere of the old Tokyo.
Asakusa's main attraction is Sensoji, a very popular Buddhist temple, built in the 7th century, however the current buildings are postwar reconstructions. The temple is approached via the Nakamise, a shopping street that has been providing temple visitors with a variety of traditional, local snacks and tourist souvenirs for centuries.
Kaminarimon is the first of two large entrance gates leading to Sensoji Temple. A large lantern hangs in the centre of the gate. First built more than 1000 years ago, it is the instantly recognizable symbol of Asakusa.
Asakusa can be easily explored on foot or on a rickshaw. We saw several people riding in these “man-powered” vehicles, but the ride is very expensive, around $80.00 for half an hour for two people. We suggested that Anil could pull Audrey and me around for an hour for free, but he wasn’t buying in.
For many centuries, Asakusa used to be Tokyo's leading entertainment area. When the district was still located outside the city limits, Asakusa was the site of kabuki theaters and a large red light district. Large parts of Asakusa were destroyed in the air raids of the Second World War. The area around the rebuilt Sensoji regained its former popularity after the war, but the entertainment district moved to other parts of Toyko. The pachinko parlours and the watering holes are still small reminders of former times. We enjoyed seeing our first Japanese temple, but I have to say, our memory of hanging out, watching the street life, is what we will always remember about our first Sunday in Japan.