I had only been in Tokyo for three days and I had spent the best part of all three of them in the Kodokan, offering moral support to my friend Yannis who was attending a judo kata seminar. Not that I could do much else; seasoned flier I was not (actually, flying still scares me speechless) and the twelve hours over Asia had taken quite a toll on my inner (and outer) balance. The weather didn’t help either: this was late July and anyone who has ever been in Tokyo this season knows very well that it is probably the worst summer you can get outside the Tropics.
Still, the fourth afternoon promised to be different and interesting since a Japanese friend of our judo teacher in Greece, a middle-aged judo teacher from Saitama was coming to Tokyo and take us to see something “really Japanese” i.e. the fireworks festival at the Sumida River. And, according to him (who was supposed to know since he was the native), the best place to see the fireworks from was Asakusa.
I knew Asakusa well; or to be precise I knew “of” Asakusa. One of my favorite authors on Japan and the elder statesman of the Japan-based expatriates, Donald Richie, has written extensively about the area, often to disparage it as a shell of its old self; that’s the problem with people like Richie: they’ve lived so long in Tokyo that they can actually say “Asakusa isn’t what it used to be” and this can really mean something. Anyway, thanks to Richie (who, to be fair, has also written one of the most moving paragraphs I’ve read about the area in his Japan Journals –but more on that later) Asakusa had always been one of the reasons I wanted to go to Tokyo.
It wasn’t just Richie either. Edward Seidensticker’s superb two-volume history/travelogue of Tokyo (Low City, High City and Tokyo Rising), Kawabata Yasunari’s The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, Sawamura Sadako’s My Asakusa and everything I could get my hands on about Yoshiwara, the legendary entertainment quarter of Edo and pre-war Tokyo had pretty much wetted my appetite so as soon as I heard that the rendezvous was in Asakusa I braced myself for an interesting afternoon/evening.
Boy was I wrong! Besides the Yoshiwara not being in Asakusa (minor mistake, easily explained considering that I had never been in Tokyo before), the thing was beyond interesting; it bordered on mystical and I’m saying this with all the aplomb I have mustered after almost a decade of Soto Zen wall gazing, and over two decades of both martial arts and professional journalism; what I mean to say is that I rarely use words like “mystical” and usually make fun of people who do. But this was something else and I knew it as soon as we took the Yamanote Line train to get to Ueno.
We were staying in Shinjuku back then, and our daily commute was to take the Oedo Line train from Tochomae Sta. and get off to Kasuga which is the station closer to the Kodokan (remember: we were only three days in Tokyo so we were just learning how to use the behemoth that is the city’s railroad/subway network). Since all we did was move from Shinjuku to Bunkyo and back, we had become pretty certain that 49,999995% of Tokyo’s population (male and female) is wearing dark suits and white shirts, carrying briefcases and working (and probably living) in high-rises and 49,999995% were trendy boys and girls wearing practically anything –the remaining 0,00001% was old ladies in kimono. We had seen two of them.
Even from Shinjuku Sta., though, things started looking weird. Instead of the usual trendy crowd which we expected to see (this was Saturday afternoon so the absence of the dark-suit crowd seemed natural) there was an alarming abundance of kimonoed men and women of all ages. And these were not the old-ladies’ somber style of kimono; these were summer yukata with colors and patterns that made my eyes hurt –not an easy feat in Tokyo and especially Shinjuku were pretty much everything is bright and colored (and usually both).
We took the train wondering what was going on and while it continued its looping orbit towards Ueno our puzzlement was growing exponentially –in direct proportion to the growing numbers of yukata-clad people. Then we changed trains at Ueno and things got even weirder since most of the (now enormous) yukata’d crowd got off with us and took the Ginza Line train. By now, we were pretty sure that all these people were going to the same place we were, so we figured out that there must be some costume event related to the fireworks; pretty soon we were about to find out that we were correct in that assumption. Well, sort of.
The moment it truly hit me was after we climbed the stairs of Asakusa station and went out in Kaminarimon Dori, the main street leading to the Sensoji Temple, Asakusa’s hub and one of Tokyo’s most famous tourist destinations. On one side there was the Sumida River with Philip Stark’s Asahi building and the “golden turd” on top. And on the other, bathed in the setting sun was the emblematic gate with the huge red paper lantern, the jinrikisha and the hundreds (actually, thousands) of people in yukata flooding the streets. No high-rises here either; just normal sized buildings with normal stores and normal people –if people wearing happi and jinbei coats and samue overalls and having tenugui towels wrapped around their heads are normal.
This was another Tokyo. This was a place where people came to do real things: walk around, shop, eat, drink, sit down and see the fireworks, sing, hold hands, flirt and chat. And they did them in a place not so different than it was 100 years ago. Of course Richie is probably right: there is a strong touristy flavor in Asakusa now and in a normal day it is almost tangible. But on the day of the fireworks festival (or of any other festival from the numerous held in the area each year), the place vibrates differently; it’s still 21st century Tokyo but it’s more than that. There, under the blinding sunlight and in the phantasmagoria of colors, the deafening polyphony of sounds and the cornucopia of smells, if you squint just so, you might be able to catch a glimpse of things centuries old. In such days, Edo reclaims its shitamachi, it’s old downtown from the tourists and its sons and daughters, the people who built modern Tokyo roam the streets, raw and brusque and real. This was not “interesting”; it was a step into another world.