Just a few subway stops from the ultramodern high rises, glitzy restaurants and chic, fur-clad pedestrians of Tokyo's Ginza, a slice of an older Japan continues to thrive in an area known as Shitamachi.
On narrow streets are traditional wood houses; craftsmen continue to ply their trades, and pilgrims from around Japan flock to grandiose temples. A somewhat plebeian atmosphere reigns in what was until the end of World War II the commercial and pleasure center of Tokyo, packed with eateries, small shops, theaters and geisha houses.
Shitamachi -- the name means "downtown" -- is really a collection of neighborhoods northeast of the Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo. It stretches more or less east from Ueno Park, known for its spring cherry blossoms, to the now very industrial Sumida River. More than any other section of Tokyo, Shitamachi has survived the huge 1923 earthquake, World War II bombings and the current-day real-estate development boom.
Several hundred years ago, when this area was set aside by the powerful Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa to house the lower classes of merchants and artisans near, but outside, his castle, it also included Ginza and Nihonbashi. Today, few signs of the old exist amid the office buildings and neon in either of those two areas.
The heart of Shitamachi today is Asakusa Park, where the Sensoji Temple, dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of mercy, has been drawing pilgrims literally for centuries. Also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, Sensoji is noted for its wafting incense, huge red lanterns (one reportedly donated years ago by the geisha of Shimbashi), thousands of pigeons and long row of old stall-like stores that have been in business for generations.
The row and surrounding alleys are filled with many cheap toy, trinket and T-shirt stalls blaring loud rock music, giving the area a gaudy, less-than-sedate atmosphere. But in between are many stores that sell more traditional goods, from beautifully understated kimono material to traditional men's footwear called geta.
On one side street, for instance, a store called Yonoya has been making the hand-carved wooden hair combs and elaborate hair pins used with intricate hair styles of the past for more than 300 years. Today, in a bow to modernity, the tiny store also sells carved wooden earrings. But its speciality is still the old, and it is one of less than a handful of such comb stores still in existence throughout Japan.
Among the stalls in the row leading up to the temple are shops that have been selling Japanese soy sauce-flavored rice crackers, or sembei, for generations, still cooking them as they always have. Another has been specializing in small traditional toys and tiny figurines dressed in old Tokyo (or Edo, as Tokyo was known for several hundred years, until 1869) style for nearly 130 years. A few doors down is a Japanese-style sweet shop that makes on the premises and sells a 110-year-old specialty of soft waffle-dough cookies filled with a sticky sweet bean paste.
In one of the warren of alleys a short distance behind the temple, a store called Adachi-ya sells traditional and festival clothing -- long, dark, billowy pants for men, old-fashioned straw sandals and brightly colored headbands and jackets. These items are worn during boisterous festival-day processions, when people take to the streets carrying portable temple shrines known as mikoshi.
In Adachi-ya, the clothing bulges out of old wooden shelves lining the walls. The elderly couple who run the store, and hover around the ancient sewing machine, fit the image of shopkeepers of old.
Not far from Adachi-ya is an Edo-style inn, or ryokan, turned pub, with dark bamboo-lined ceilings, narrow wooden stairs, tatami sitting areas and an old wooden bar. To eat or drink here you must first buy large wooden coins used in Tokyo 300 years ago. Those Edo-era coins were called mon, and the restaurant, appropriately, is named Ichi (one) Mon.
In the midst of all the bustle of Asakusa, but well-hidden from the average temple supplicant (and, in the old days, closed to all but the most mighty) is a Kyoto-style garden, with a pondside walk offering picturesque views of the temple's pagoda and main hall. Even today you need prior permission to get in. Located in what is essentially a housing compound for the Sensoji Temple monks, this Dembo'in garden is said to have been designed in the 17th century by one of Japan's most famous tea ceremony masters, who also designed the garden in Kyoto's Katsura Detached Palace. It is a quiet and contemplative swath of countrylike remoteness, with only a few of the surrounding high-rise apartment buildings visible and none of the hectic noise from the streets audible.
A similar sense of peacefulness can be found in another section of Shitamachi, called Yanaka, which is located a 15-minute ride northwest of Asakusa, near Nippori Station.
It is difficult when meandering through the streets here not to chance upon a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine every few minutes: The area is dotted with temples and cemeteries. Unlike the majority of temples in Tokyo, quite a few here survived World War II and the various earthquakes. A host of famous authors, artists and even some scoundrels are buried in the cemeteries.
Like the area around Asakusa, Yanaka has its share of old wooden buildings and shops specializing in traditional crafts -- from colorful Japanese paper folding to bamboo baskets. There is even a museum specializing in clocks owned by feudal lords of the Edo period.
Kappabashi, located between Yanaka and Asakusa, has more of the old Shitamachi feeling and working-class ethos than it has actual sights. This is where restaurant and kitchen-supply stores cluster. You'll know you've arrived in the right place when you see a huge bust of a mustachioed French chef, complete with white chef's hat, looking out across the city from atop a building.
The stores, which form a sort of covered market street for many blocks of Kappabashi Road, stock everything from kitchen sinks and sushi chef outfits to fine china and lacquerware, all spilling out onto the sidewalks.
Foreign tourists, however, know the area best for its sam-pu-ru, the samples or plastic models of food sold here that nearly every Tokyo restaurant displays to lure in (or, in some cases, unintentionally make ill) prospective diners.
Plastic fried eggs (sunny side up only) abound, as do bowls of surprisingly lifelike spaghetti, complete with forkfuls suspended in midair. How about a platter of sushi and crisply fried shrimp tempura, a frothy mug of beer or an order of onion-smothered calves liver? These and literally hundreds more plastic displays of Japanese, American and French food are available. Not far from Kappabashi Road dozens of stores sell household altars, often very expensive and quite ornate. Some also sell the huge drums and portable mikoshi shrines used in festivals. As in Yanaka, the back streets here also are filled with temples and shrines.
A subway stop or short taxi ride from the Kappabashi area is Ueno, where literally millions of Japanese flock each spring to see the famous cherry blossoms.
Ueno these days is best known as the departure and entry points for all northern Japan train traffic. However, Ueno also has several major museums and religious sights, including one temple where discarded dolls are brought each September and burned in a religious bonfire.
The most famous of the Ueno shrines is Toshogu, dedicated to Ieyasu Tokugawa, the shogun whose actions helped create Shitamachi. Built in the mid-1600s, it is the less famous of two ornately decorated shrines honoring Tokugawa. (The other is located in the mountains of Nikko, a scenic small town about a two-hour train ride northwest of Tokyo from Asakusa station.)
Ueno also is home to the Shitamachi museum, which was created in 1980 to remind Tokyoites and others what life was like in the old days. The museum, located on the lake in Ueno Park, contains reconstructions of prewar houses, including a merchant's shop, candy store, coppersmith's workshop and an old public bath. In addition, it displays some typical Shitamachi toys, such as wooden tops, as well as movie posters from the 1920s and 1930s, when Asakusa was Tokyo's entertainment hub.
While Shitamachi's heyday is long gone, there are still some Japanese around who were part of it. If you sit in the Shitamachi museum long enough you will see them come through, kimono-clad or sometimes sporting workman's clothing, marveling in remembrance at the exhibits of a Tokyo that once was and, undoubtedly, will soon be no longer. For more information, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization, 630 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10111, (212) 757-5640.