In the Japanese capital, age-old traditions are providing the inspiration for renewal in the historic Asakusa district, a short trip from Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo

Nitenmon Gate lantern

Nitenmon Gate lantern

Tsubaki at her dance lesson

Tsubaki at her dance lesson

It’s 8.30am and two mothers ride side by side, chattering as they steer their bicycles on a short cut through the grounds of Senso-ji temple. They are both ferrying their infant sons – who are dressed in standard-issue white shirt, shorts, beribboned straw hats and yellow plimsolls – to school. Meanwhile, temple attendants in wooden sandals clip clop from building to building, organising the trays of lucky charms for sale and refilling the drawers of paper fortunes. To the west of the temple precincts, the clear morning lights up the impressive five-storey pagoda.

In Nakamise-dori, the shopping street approaching the temple, stallholders begin to throw open their shutters, revealing their wares – cakes, rice crackers and souvenirs – to the delighted junior high school students on a day trip from the suburbs. In between rummaging through the myriad character toys, fans, masks and snacks, they accost Western tourists to read, from a script: ‘What is your name? Where are you from?’ Each response is carefully recorded in their exercise books before they seek out another visitor to add to their chart. Asakusa, in the northeast of the city, is the best place in Tokyo to find foreign visitors – even this early in the morning!

The grand Senso-ji Buddhist temple is the spiritual soul of Asakusa, the former downtown entertainment heart of Tokyo. In the years before the war, dancing girls graced the stages of Asakusa’s revue halls, Japan’s first cinemas thrilled the masses and the long-established licensed pleasure quarters, with their famous geisha and courtesans, thrived. Visiting Asakusa from Tokyo’s brash western districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya is like stepping back in time.

There is space, charm and a true sense of community – a place where real Tokyoites continue to live – not to mention the stunning temple that is the centre of attention. Forty million visitors descend on Asakusa every year in search of what’s left of ‘old Tokyo’, one million of whom are foreign.

Stacked fans with ‘Asakusa’ imprinted on them

Stacked fans with ‘Asakusa’ imprinted on them

A rice cracker shop in Nakamise-dori

A rice cracker shop in Nakamise-dori

And so, each day, the precincts of Senso-ji and Nakamise-dori teem with visitors. Runners from the two booming rickshaw businesses, in their distinctive Edo-period costumes, haul tourists around the major sights: the imposing temple gate, the Kaminarimon gate, the Asakusa Shrine, the 400-year-old Nitenmon gate and the fascinating 19th-century Hana-yashiki funfair. On festival days, which happen at the temple and neighbouring Shinto shrine virtually every month, numbers swell. Amongst them are the January radish festival, April’s baby-crying contest and December’s ornamental battledore fair. The biggest is the Sanja festival in May, which celebrates the Shinto deities that protect 44 local communities. It involves 100 portable shrines each carried on a wave of at least 40 people, and attracts over a million spectators over three days.

Entrance to the local shrine

Entrance to the local shrine

The five-storey pagoda at Senso-ji

The five-storey pagoda at Senso-ji

Festivals, traditional entertainments and native arts and crafts are at the centre of every-day Asakusa life. Local shops make their own rice crackers and ningyo-yaki sweets (doll-shaped buns filled with sweet red beans); artisans continue to make dancers’ fans, tabi (socks with toes to allow for sandals) and tortoiseshell hair ornaments. Asakusa as an entertainment centre survives on a more moderate scale with the geisha, family theatre troupes and comics who continue to make it their home and workplace. Around 60, mainly elderly, geisha remain in Asakusa and, in recent years, they have been joined by a new kind of entertainer who draws on the traditional geisha arts of dance and conversation but is a thoroughly modern girl.

Lanterns just taken down

Lanterns just taken down

At 4pm, as visitors head home from Senso-ji, a young woman is commuting in to Asakusa from her home west of Tokyo. She arrives at her workplace, slips off her shoes in the entrance and takes a seat behind a table upon which are all the things she needs: white theatrical base foundation, a sponge and a brush, white powder and a puff, red lip colour and a brush, brown eyebrow colour and purple eye shadow, black eye pencil and mascara. She sets to work applying the make-up to her face while a colleague whitens her neck and shoulders. Her visage complete, she slips into her under kimono and tabi socks. Next she is helped into yards of silk kimono embroidered with cherry blossoms – the ubiquitous symbol of spring in Japan – and her dramatic wig is set in place. Her kimono is secured with silk ties over which her silk obi sash is tied with yet more silk cord. With a few lucky charms attached to her obi, some ornate hairpieces adorning her wig and a traditional-style clutch bag in hand, within half an hour, the 23-year-old is transformed into Tsubaki, a furisode.

Furisode dancing

Furisode dancing

Tsubaki applying her make-up

Tsubaki applying her make-up

To the untrained eye, the furisode, with her captivating white face and neck, and berry lips, looks just like a geisha. But to the seasoned observer, her attire gives her away as something different. First there are the long, almost trailing, sleeves of her kimono from which she takes her name. Furisode means ‘long sleeves’ and this dressy style of kimono is only worn by young women. In the Edo period, it was worn only by daughters of the wealthy, as the impractically long sleeves meant the women couldn’t work. Then there’s the tying of her obi sash in a style distinctive to Asakusa – a style similar to that of a hangyoku, apprentice geisha. Then her coiffure – a 2kg wig, crafted in real hair for each individual furisode, by one of only two remaining wig makers in Tokyo – in a style worn only by younger women and apprentice geisha.

Girls en route to a function in the Rokku area

Girls en route to a function in the Rokku area

Tsubaki (which means ‘Camellia’) and the 14 other beautifully named Asakusa furisode are entertainers in the geisha mould – they dance, serve drinks and make conversation, smooth the way for business deals and captivate tourists. But they are also unlike geisha in many ways – they are a modern take on one of Japan’s best-loved traditions – and this makes them crucial to the cultural future of Asakusa. As a child growing up in Mukojima, close to Asakusa, Tsubaki was captivated by the geisha she often saw. ‘That inspired me to become a geisha – it was my dream from when I was a small child,’ she says. ‘But being a geisha is so difficult because you have to support yourself financially,’ she adds. And so, after leaving school five years ago, Tsubaki became a furisode instead.

Detail from the furisode’s obi sash

Detail from the furisode’s obi sash

For women who don’t want to risk the economic uncertainty or financial outlay associated with geisha life, but do still want to learn about and preserve Japanese traditional arts, furisode is an attractive alternative. As employees of the Asakusa Kanko Furisode Gakuin (Asakusa Tourism Furisode Academy), set up by local gift-shop owners, the girls have the security of regular hours (4-10pm), regular pay, access to 500 kimonos, silk obi and a treasure trove of accessories, plus dance lessons and tea-ceremony training. There is also the cachet of this kind of work. ‘My friends think I’m like an actress,’ says 20-year-old Momo (‘Peach’). In turn, the furisode are on hand to attend functions or local, national and international events promoting Japan and Japanese culture. As geisha numbers decline, they help preserve certain traditions and provide access to Japanese arts at a time when interest in them is huge. The Academy’s manager, Lisa Kawai, says: ‘Not many people want to be geisha, but Asakusa has a very important culture that the local business owners felt was important to hand down, which is why they established the furisode.

We all have a strong feeling of preserving traditions that might otherwise die out,’ says Tsubaki, who has recently started learning the three-stringed shamisen, traditionally the instrument of the geisha. Momo continues: ‘When I was studying in America, many people asked me about Japanese culture but I couldn’t tell them about it, so I decided I ought to learn. Since starting here six months ago I have learnt how to put on and move in a kimono, how to make tea and I am studying traditional dance. The more I study the more I find I love Japanese culture,’ she adds.

Tsubaki all made-up

Tsubaki all made-up

A furisode makes her preparations

A furisode makes her preparations

As with young geisha and hangyoku, much of the furisode’s attraction is her captivating image created by make-up, hairstyle and kimono, and the nostalgia it conjures up. ‘Guests like to see young geisha, but it is a time in the geisha world when there are not so many young geisha,’ says Tomohiko Mochizuki, a traditional innkeeper and born and bred Asakusan. As a member of the local Edo Arts Study Group, Mochizuki is knowledgeable about the challenges facing the traditional Japanese arts. ‘The furisode are young and are training. When guests call the furisode they can relax and enjoy their company – that is a good reason for having furisode.

‘The geisha community tends to be closed – it is not easy for them to adapt to the winds of change,’ says Mochizuki. So, when the furisode first appeared in Asakusa, 11 years ago, there was some scepticism. ‘But there are so many opportunities for them to work together now that things are good’, he says. Indeed, the work of the geisha and the furisode is complementary and they are often called together to attend larger functions. Tsubaki says that in her five years as a furisode, she has never experienced any negative feelings. ‘Geisha have a long tradition and so we can learn a lot from them. The geisha treat us very well – like sisters.’

Furisode means ‘long sleeves’ and the dressy style of Kimono is only worn by young women

A bamboo whisk, spoon and a lacquer container of green tea

A bamboo whisk, spoon and a lacquer container of green tea

To call a geisha requires a formal introduction to the gatekeepers of their world, but visitors who want to see performers in the traditional mould can request the furisode simply by contacting the Academy. The furisode are also ‘out there’ promoting their work. Twice a week a small group makes the 10-minute shuffle in their zori sandals from the Academy to Asakusa’s new public bath complex at the Rox. As they cross Nakamise-dori they are regularly stopped to pose for photos. On-stage at the Rox the furisode perform three dances, and afterwards they talk to the guests in the relaxation area and pour drinks. ‘Are you geisha?’ many guests will ask, and the furisode will explain the unique nature of her work.

Lanterns in spring showing the names of different temple donors

Lanterns in spring showing the names of different temple donors

On other occasions, furisode welcome visitors to events such as private birthday celebrations and boat parties on the Sumida River, a favourite Edo pastime of geisha and their customers. They have represented Japan at numerous international events, such as the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong and a Japanese festival in Hawaii, and regularly travel to Asakusa’s ‘sister’ cities around Japan. Recently they modelled kimono designed by Junko Koshino at a moon-lit fashion show in Senso-ji temple, bringing their work to the attention of a whole new audience.

As the success of the furisode shows, there is a strong interest in preserving the cultural heritage of Tokyo’s original downtown districts, by way of refreshing and re-fashioning those traditions to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The Rokku area of Asakusa, still home to many theatres and cinemas, has been revitalised with many shop fronts renovated in the traditional style and restaurants continuing to attract visitors with dishes such as tempura, soba noodles and eel.

Tsubaki and the other Furisode are entertainers in the geisha mould. They dance, serve drinks and captivate tourists

Tsubaki carries out the tea ceremony

Tsubaki carries out the tea ceremony

Every weekend in the Traditional Crafts Museum, artisans demonstrate their skills, making all manner of goods from paper lanterns to chagama ‘kettles’ used for the tea ceremony. Other entertainers, such as players of the koto – the three-stringed Japanese harp, singers of poetic songs and male geisha (four remain in Asakusa) also continue to make a living.

In the Engei Hall, the masters of traditional comic storytelling (rakugo) which has been performed in Asakusa since the 17th century, are faced with similar challenges to the geisha community. ‘Three hundred years ago, rakugo was king of comedy,’ says 33-year-old amateur comic, Tachikawa Furadanji. ‘Nowadays, there is so much entertainment and if the style of rakugo doesn’t change, we can’t continue to fascinate people.’ And so younger rakugo comics have brought their performances into the 21st century by adding stories of modern life to the repertoire that has been handed down over generations. ‘Rakugo has been refined over 300 years, so this new style won’t conquer the old,’ says Furadanji, sitting in a green kimono and clutching the fan and cloth that are the tools of his trade. ‘But it is important for us to develop a style of rakugo to attract new audiences. I enjoy performing both kinds. By using some new stories, we can protect the traditions of the old ones and preserve rakugo for ever.’

Things are on the up for Asakusa. A new railway line has reached the western side of town; rakugo is seeing a boom in interest among young people; and the furisode have had a busy winter season. Spring is in the air and the banks of the Sumida river will soon throng with visitors and locals enjoying the cherry blossom. This year’s Sanja festival is just round the corner and will, no doubt, bring more people than ever to sample the delights of Asakusa, with its nostalgic charm and its eternal spirit of reinvention – the secret of its survival.

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