Old school

10 07 2009

For all its neon skyscrapers and giant robots, much of Tokyo’s charm comes from the ramshackle old neighborhoods. These are some of my favorite Tokyo scenes, the little winding streets of shophouses with paper lanterns and noren curtains, and pot plants galore.

The shitamachi or “lower town”  neighborhood of Iriya is typical of this  side of the city, with its local family businesses and little shrines and even canals.

Daisuke and I went to visit a local shrine, the temple of the King of Hell, where a 3 metre statue of the deity is placated by throwing coins into buckets, each one labelled with something the worshipper wishes for  eg luck in love, passing exams, good health etc.

Another unusual nearby temple is the Kappa-dera, or “kappa temple” (kappas are a kind of aquatic goblin in Japanese folklore). The temple was built in a riverside neighborhood formerly plagued by the creatures and is said to contain a dried and withered kappa’s arm – sadly not on display when we visited. But we did see the altar to the creatures stocked with their favorite treat, cucumbers, as well as statues of the beasts all around the neighborhood.

The thing that Iriya is most famous for, however, is its annual Morning Glory Market, held over three days in July when hundreds of thousands of morning glory plants are sold to visitors to celebrate the beginning of Summer. I was a little disappointed by the market itself – the shrubs weren’t yet in bloom so it wasn’t as colorful as I had expected, but the hokey Summer festival atmosphere more than made up for it, with old-time snacks and kiddie attractions like the goldfish scoop, or beetles in a cage.

(Caramelised fish spines, mmmmmm)

The surrounding neighborhood streets were coloufrully decorated with paper lanterns and streamers for Tanabata, sometimes called “the Star Festival” which is celebrated on July 7th to remember an ancient Chinese story about two lovers in the sky, who are separated by the Milky Way. Every year they can meet on July 7th as long as the sky is clear. Peopl pray for fine weather for the lovers and tie their own wishes on colorful slips of paper to bamboo trees.

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