One of the most enduring images of Japan, at least in the minds of westerners, is the geisha. Few other professions have reached such a mythological status as the geisha. They were the most refined entertainment money could buy back in the old days. They knew the popular songs, they could play all the instruments, dance and sing and entertain both men and women who were stressed out from work or social responsibilities. In an age before mass entertainment, if you had the cash you hired a geisha. The social practice still lives on in Japan (and elsewhere), but these days it is in the much more egalitarian (in that it is available for both men and women and that training is fast and simple) and affordable in the form of hostess clubs, host bars, “pubs” and other variations of trades still know by the old euphemism “the water trade”. The traditional geisha of old still exists in modern Japan, but they are more viewed as beloved carriers of centuries old tradition and culture than mere entertainment. And the prices are still of the reach for ordinary mortals.
Tokyo has several areas known as “Yoshiwara”, where the were large concentrations of geisha houses, in the traditional entertainment districts (always near the richest areas) of the city. The most famous one is the Yoshiwara in Asakusa, near the Sumida River in the north east of central Tokyo. During the annual and massive Sanja Matsuri (Festival of the Three Shrines) a few of the local geisha take part in the parades, as much for the benefit of their neighborhood as for advertising themselves I think. They are followed by their entourage of fan bearers or parasol carriers and maid servants holding up signs with the names of the geisha and their houses. For most people, this is the only chance to ever see a geisha in real life. Where once there were geisha houses in every city across the country, these days there are very very few remaining. I was once lucky enough, many years ago, to be invited to a geisha dinner in Kyoto, the dinner tab must have been astronomical! Of course I couldn’t help but asking the geisha seated next to me, a young lady at 25, what she did on her days off: “Oh the usual, I go for walks, I like to travel, I go to the movies or chat with friends online”. The geisha of Asakusa, at least the ones in these photos, regularly perform in dance, theatre and culture shows in and around Asakusa.
The Sanja Festival in Asakusa is one of those epic moments of Tokyo, something that has to be seen to be imagined. For just a very few days an entire city within the city, attracting between a half and and a million people on each of the three days it takes place. Over one hundred omikoshi, porable shrines, are paraded around the streets and most streets are blocked for vehicle traffic. If you are in Tokyo May 17th to May 20th, consider yourself lucky! However, a lot of Tokyoites can’t stand the Sanja Festival, due to it being extremely crowded and by Tokyo standards very rough and rowdy. Still, considering the size and the amount of alcohol consumed by both participants and tourists, it is remarkably safe and relaxed. It is great to see all aspects of modern society united to celebrate a local festival: young families withs strollers share the streets with old couples in wheelchairs while young bravados carry huge shrines through the streets as gangsters pose with their posses next to police officers patiently watching to make sure there are no accidents, all in the same scene, the rich and poor, the young and the old, the law and the outlaws, all together in the spirit of the festival. Or as I like to say, a civilized society in good working order.
If I have to rank the many tourist destinations in Tokyo and give you the place that should be on the top list of any tourist with the ambition to see Tokyo, it is easily the Asakusa district. I have blogged about this part of the city and the fantastically colorful Sensoji (Tokyo’s first and grandest temple) many times before but I just can’t help myself from pulling up the camera whenever I pass. Everytime I visit I have the ambition to find the odd little spots I have missed earlier, to go for details rather than large open views but I always get blown away by the colors and size of everything. Asakusa is easily the second greatest city attraction (ok, technically the greatest but Gion in Kyoto still wins for pure charm, beauty and dignity) in Japan. You can make several little trips (the place changes atmosphere and color so much during the day) or spend an entire day here from morning to midnight. Luckily most of Tokyo’s backpacker hostels are in the area. Use the tags at the bottom of the post to find more posts about Asakusa!
The many gates of the temple are fantastically photogenic, and the nearby bridge over Sumida river tends to be a popular photo spot with tourists and locals. One local lady even decided to climb the bridge pillars to get a better view! Next to the famous Kaminarimon you’ll also find the number one souvenir associated with the gate: Kaminariokoshi. In the last photo you’ll see a couple checking out the shop just before closing one evening a few weeks ago.
I have visited a couple of cat cafes and even a dog cafe or two here in Tokyo but this bunny cafe in Tokyo’s premier tourist district Asakusa was a new one for me! Ms. Bunny (apparently there is also a store in Roppongi) offers the cat cafe treatment, only with bunnies! They also offer bunny hotels (over night service if you need to go out of town and there’s no-one to look after your furry little friend for you), also the usual bunny spa specials, claw cutting, grooming etc. The whole building, all three floors have been converted and if you are an animal lover suffering from a lack of pets why not try something new and nuzzle up to a bunny while enjoying jazz music and some ice tea? I happened to pass a little late in the evening, but someday I’ll have to try it out. The price for a cafe visit is 500 yen per 30 minutes and there’s even an option to rent a bunny if you are feeling lonely over the weekend. There are markets for everything indeed! More information on their website here.
Last night was the annual Tourounagashi (灯篭流し) ceremony at the huge Sensoji temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. It takes place during Obon, which is the traditional time for Japanese people to tend their ancestral graves, remember the relatives who came before them and pray and give offerings to their ancestors. At the temple, the Tourounagashi ceremony is part of that tradition and buddhist monks chant over the ceremony as lay people let painted paper lanterns slide into Sumida river, carrying prayers for peace and rest for their deceased loved ones. Even deceased pets can be honored in this way. The ceremony in Tokyo is not very big, the more famous ones are held in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as Obon coincides with the a-bomb remembrances over there. Other famous ones are held in Fukui, Kyoto, Niigata and Yokohama.
Not to worry about pollution and littering, this being Japan all the lanterns are collected as the are carried by the wind along the river by volunteer boat teams making sure not to add to the trash in the river. Speaking of trash, in the years I have lived in Tokyo the river has actually become markedly cleaner. I see less garbage and more birds in the river than before.
The quay from which the lanterns were launched were packed with people so I had to be content with staying up on the embankment. Maybe next time I’ll join the people offering lanterns and prayers.
As a bonus, one photo of the always magnificent Kaminariom, the huge paper lantern under the gate leading to Sensoji temple. Enjoy!