Of Asakusa, Grandmothers and Plastic Food
Asakusa is a quiet, traditional Tokyo neighborhood — once the tourist-fueled pandemonium of Nakamise Dori and the Senjoi Temple are escaped.
Stepping out of the subway onto Kaminarimon Dori, the main drag, persistent salesman hawk rickshaw rides.
“Empty,” one entrepreneur gestures quite accurately to the traditional human-powered transport. The whole scene screams tourist trap. But it’s a mere foretaste of what’s around the corner.
Hunger drives the first few moments in this neighborhood in the northeast part of Tokyo. A visit to the Tokyo National Museum in nearby Ueno Park lasts too long. There is a screw-up on the subway (Guess who?) It’s pushing 2 p.m., fuel is essential.
A sukiyaki place selected by Katie is shuttered. She quickly regroups, directing us to Sansado, a tempura joint staffed and apparently owned by friendly kimono-wearing grandmothers.
Frommers says they have no menu in English and force non-Japanese diners to walk into the street, look at the photos on their sandwich board and order from there.
The grandmothers have made concessions, presumably because of the Frommer-generated popularity of their establishment. There is now an English language menu.
We’re shunted to the second floor up steep wooden stairs worthy of Amsterdam. Wood interiors, hatched-bamboo ceiling and a tatami room in the back suggest if these crafty veterans can’t do tempura right, nobody else can. There’s a calendar on the wall with photos of puppies.
Katie hankers for the tempura over rice. It is rapidly consumed and pronounced epic.
There’s a tempura plate with shrimp and kakiage – “small shrimps, diced cuttlefish and scallop valve muscles.” Very popular, the menu informs.
The grandmother taking the order, like the person ordering, must put on spectacles to see the choices made. When the beer is brought, two glasses are placed on the table. Katie slides her glass away.
Kakiage may be popular but as tempura it doesn’t hold together well. It is, however, far less chewy than the cuttlefish tentacles sushi from Tsukiji.
Spirits buoyed, the gauntlet of Nakamise Dori is run and a visit paid to the Senjoi Temple.
It’s a straight shot to the temple down the pedestrian only street. But the street is lined on both sides with shop after shop after shop of souvenirs and sweets.
There’s trinkets, hats, toys. A furry ferret-like thing attached to a ball that flops around like a trout brought to the bank is featured at several establishments. Kimonos, lanterns, purses, those stylized cats with the waving paw, which are a popular good luck charm, are all for sale.
Its bedlam. And though more than 90 percent of the faces are Japanese it still feels like being sucked into the vortex of tourist hell.
Later, we learn that two streets over there are twisting brick streets lined with old style buildings with wood facades – a shoe store here, a clothing store there. Each with broad open fronts that appear to get closed at night like a garage door and reopened in the morning.
Huckstering is greatly diminished at the temple. A cauldron of incense sits before the steps leading up to the actual worship spot. The custom is to push the smoke toward what part of the body ails you. There isn’t enough smoke.
We throw coins in a large slatted box before the grillwork separating the praying monks from the world of Nakemise Dori. We clap twice, as is the custom, then make a wish and bow. The wish will now come true.
There are several walls in front of the temple set with a series of narrow drawers. Within each is a fortune.
Drop 100 yen into a slot and shake a large silver cylinder until a stick pops out of a small hole. There are three Japanese symbols on each stick.
Katie divines that the bottom symbol corresponds to the drawer she should open for her fortune.
She receives NO. 9 BEST FORTUNE, quoted verbatim:
“If you try to be famous, it will come out as you hope. For example, if you have three kinds of hopes, three will be completed.
“Gods will come and where he points to flowers and fruits grow timely. Good will come and it brings you happiness.
“*Your wishes will be realized. *A sick person will recover. *The lost article will be found. *The person you are waiting for will come. *Building a new house and removal are good. *Marriage and employment are all good. *Making a trip is all right.”
In contrast, here is my No. 17 BAD FORTUNE, to wit:
“If you try to avoid danger, you will suffer from difficulties. Misfortunes come continuously and members of your family will have to leave.
“When you feel sorry for flowers fall, it begins again to rain onto them. Since everything doesn’t go well as you expected, you’ll come to think up something bad while drinking.
“*Your wishes will not be realized. *A sick person will not recover. *The lost article will not be found. *The person you are waiting for will not come. *Building a new house and removal are not good. *Making a trip is bad. *Marriage and employment are both bad.”
Is it possible to go two out of three?
To the walking-distance west of Asakusa is Kappabashi Dori, a part of town in which many of the shops supply restaurants. Some sell woven baskets. Some sell dishware or knives or whatever disparate ingredient a restaurant needs to whip into success.
The streets are straight and narrow. Periodic bicyclists pedal by, often on the scrunched-to-begin-with sidewalks. The custom appears to be to pedal and demand the pedestrian becomes the chicken.
No self-respecting neighborhood that supplies restaurant supplies to Japan and elsewhere in the East would lack a plastic food store. Kappabashi Dori is no exception. There’s some replicas of fish dishes that would be better left unspoken, let alone unseen.
New plastic food is not cheap, which again presents an entrepreneurial opportunity: Used plastic restaurant food.
Surely when a restaurant goes under or the proprietor dies, the plastic food has to go to someone. Take that inventory and flood the market with cheaper product. Presto, the Wal-Mart of plastic restaurant food!
Filed under: Trip to Tokyo
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