Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Asakusa Kannon - Senso-ji

On Sunday, after the heavy rain-showers cleared, I took the Ginza metro subway line to Asakusa (about 30 minutes). Asakusa is a riverside quarter, marked by Philippe Starck's Flamme d'Or prosaically standing on top of Asahi beer brewery across the Sumida River. From right next to Asakusa metro station, one can wander through the popular Nakamise Dori, famed for selling the condiments, sweets, handcrafts and traditional goods reminiscent of the Edo period, when this part of Tokyo was the pleasure district for entertainment up until around 1940. Asakusa Kannon, also known as Senso-ji, is Tokyo's oldest temple, accordingly dating back to 628AD. A myth attributes its origins to two fabled brothers fishing in the Sumida River who caught and surfaced a golden statue. After throwing it back into the river, they caught it a second time, and decided to enshrine it in the brother's house for the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Kannon, on the site where the temple now stands today. From 1600-1868, nearby this district of Edo was the pleasure district, ensuring it flourished and prospered for wealthy clientele. At the time, Kabuki theatre was also performed in this area. In contemporary times, Asakusa is still home to festivals and celebratory activities, such as the Sanja Matsuri, Samba carnival and river fireworks. Nakamise Dori is the thoroughfare leading from the public street up to the forecourt of the temple, lined with tiny shops selling sembae (rice cookies), moochi (sweet, sticky rice cakes), Azuki (red bean) filled doughy biscuits, combs, fans, swords, knives, chopsticks, get/setta, phone dangles, silk cords, cloth and fabric prints, toys, kimono, dolls, paper crafts, etc. derivative of traditional styles, tailored for the sightseer. Before the temple, visitors 'bathe' themselves in aromatic incense smoke that is supposed to purge all kinds of ailments and misdemeanours before entering the temple, people offer prayers at the large bell on the steps and ritual water spurting from dragon sculpture's mouths cleanses the hands and face. Around the temple itself, there are other more subtle little shirines and gardens, carp ponds and side-attractions, on the approach roads lined by stalls selling takoyaki (octopus balls) with copious helpings of stinky bonito flakes wriggling on top, okonomiyake - pancakes with similar mayonnaise and BBQ sauce Japanese style. Nearby stands a 55m pagoda, second-highest in Japan, with an elegant bronze(?) pinnacle on top that I was able to photograph for the first time properly with my 420mm zoom. Venturing into nearby covered arcades of rows of shops reveals more traditional and craft wares, a craft museum and eateries. A nearby alley consisted almost exclusively of bench-style drinking inns of people cheerily eating plentiful dishes of small snacks, udon noodle broths (Traditional around here), kushiage (barbecued skewers) with large steins of beer. I considered myself very authentic/adventurous eating cold soba with dashi of rich bonito and extremely seaweedy topping, despite ordering the mushroom and radish version, that smelled pungently of low-tide estuary! This I counteracted with my first 'home-cooked' meal comprising a much-needed dose of exclusively vegetables, capitalising on the locally seasonal and delicious large yellow mushrooms, shitake and asparagus with ginko nuts(?) and tofu. [More photos on Flickr]