Wednesday, December 07, 2005


I'm planning to go back to Canada for Christmas holidays this year, so I decided to head to Tokyo to do a little Christmas shopping. I wanted to buy some uniquely Japanese gifts, so I decided to go to the one place I knew would have everything I wanted: Asakusa.

Asakusa (浅草) is the home to Sensoji temple, one of the bigger Buddhist temples in Tokyo. Visitors are greeted by the "Thunder Gate," or "Kaminari-mon" (雷門). The giant lantern hangs below the even more gigantic wooden gate as it welcomes visitors. The entrance is flanked on both sides by the guardians, warding off evil spirits like great spiritual sentinels.
As you cross through the gate, you enter a long walkway that seems to stretch unendingly forward. The walkway is lined with a long chain of little shops that sell everything from food to charms to swords to fans to silks.

Even a cold and dreary day like this one couldn't drive the shoppers away from here, as they milled around like little eddies in a stream, pausing for a brief moment to peruse some small shop's wares, or to find shelter from the rain.

Some of the shopkeepers are shrinking wallflowers, moping in the doorway of their shops like schoolgirls at the prom, waiting for someone to ask them to dance. Others are bold wildflowers, bellowing out "Irashaimase! Irashaimase!" "Welcome, welcome! Come inside and see all the wonderful things I have for you today." The cacophany of shopkeepers surrounds you as you ride the different currents of foot traffic that carry you to the shops where you want to go.
One of the nicer shops was selling hot roasted senbei; a kind of treat made from a special rice that's been pounded and kneaded, then cut into shape. These senbei were perfect for a cold day like this: crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, a little sweet, and oh so warm. They tasted even better when dipped into a special blend of seven spices called shichimi togarashi. The perfect compliment to the senbei was a special ginger tea called amayu. The warmth and spiciness is just the right medicine to warm you up from the inside in this dreary drizzle.

Another kind of shop that's particularly popular sells omamori. These are a type of Buddhist charm that you can carry on your keychain, attach to your pencil case, or stick on to the window of your car. They all have a small panel bordeded with a woven cover. The panel gives the name of the temple and what the charm is for. Like so many other things Japanese, they are ornate works of art, with cute myriad types of decorations on them, and festooned with the traditional woven silk rope and tassels dangling below, and bells for calling the gods. They have omamori for all manner of blessings. Students hoping to pass their entrance exams can get ones for school. People who are afraid to drive can get safe driving ones. Expecting mothers can even get ones that give blessings for a safe delivery.

After the electronics district in Akihabara, Asakusa is probably one of the most popular places for tourists. Many of the shops there sell just the kinds of mementoes that they want to bring home and show their friends and families. For people who fancy traditional Japnaese-style clothing, there is a plethora of shops that have just what they are looking for. Silks, cotton kimono, sansals, parasols, you name it. It's a veritable treasure trove of the kind of clothes most people think of when they think of old Japan. They're also quite reasonably priced, with something that can fit in just about anyone's budget.

In the early days of the New Year, the trickle of shoppers along this corridor turns into a great river of worshippers, packed with enough people that it's ready to burst its banks. Foot traffic slows to a crawl as this human tide clamors to get through to buy their charms and amulets for the new year. As they approach the temple gates, the great deluge floods its way through the temple grounds.

People slipslide through the crowd as they navigate their way to the temple hall to pray for a healthy and prosperous new year. They then ride the little currents to the tidepools that wash up in front of the other little vendors inside the temple grounds, buying fortunes and other charms. They then ride the waves out through the gate, as they drift back to their daily lives.


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