Thoughts on life after the PhD
I set off in search of sleaze and debauchery, but it seems the cleanup crew got there ahead of me.
As part of her research on the world of early Japanese film, I recently accompanied my friend Colleen to Asakusa’s Rokku Broadway district, known for its high concentration of gambling dens and porno theaters (not really the sort of place a gaijin gal likes to go alone). Colleen was shocked to discover that in the year and a half since she’d last visited, the area had changed completely. We found only one sad-looking porno theater…
and one strip show…
though the gambling dens (mostly centered around horse racing) appeared to still be doing a brisk business.
This isn’t so surprising–adult theaters everywhere have been shutting down since the invention of the video cassette. An interesting exception to this trend is the Ueno Okura, which used to be one of eight adult theaters in Ueno showing “pink” films (a form of soft-core pornography popular in the 1960s). The theater has recently been given a major face lift (brightly lit hallways, plush seats) and is attempting to attract more young people and women–no word yet on how that’s going.
For the Asakusa Rokku district, I can’t help but wonder if the vanishing adult theaters are part of a conscious clean-up effort on the part of the Tokyo government, which in recent years has sent “inspectors” to Akihabara to make sure that all the anime-related goods on display are free of any hint of child pornography. Asakusa Rokku doesn’t seem like the sort of place that such inspectors would care about–even though the heavily touristed area of Senso-ji Temple is only a few blocks away, we didn’t see a single tourist in Asakusa Rokku–but you never know.
For a glimpse of old-world Tokyo, though, Asakusa Rokku still has its points of interest. The crowd is noticeably scruffier and older than in other Tokyo neighborhoods, with very few women (and no children). You won’t find much hyper-politeness or bowing–I was bumped into at least three times without hearing so much as a “sumimasen.” Men congregate on street corners drinking cheap beer and checking out horse racing statistics.
In terms of landmarks, there’s the famous Asaksusa Denkikan (Electric Hall), Japan’s first full-time movie theater, which opened in 1903.
According to Colleen, the place reflected Japan’s early fascination with technology, particularly electricity–in addition to seeing a movie, patrons could place their hand in a pool of water and get a jolt of electric current, or have an X-ray taken. Today the Denkikan has been converted into a typical mult-purpose complex, with an izakaya, a pachinko parlor, and a game arcade.
We also found a theater where you could see live rakugo, a traditional form of comedy where a man sits on a zabuton (cushion) and relies on character voices and minimal gestures to tell comic stories, usually involving puns.
Rakugo is actually still thriving among Japan’s older generation, with the more famous performers drawing large crowds.
The streets just beyond Asakusa Rokku are a warren of little alleys that seem to be frozen thirty or forty years in the past–there are a lot of monja and okonomiyaki joints, cafes, and cheap diners. On nearby Kappabashi-dori (where the cobblestones are shaped like the head of a kappa, the water-sprite that looks a bit like a platypus), there’s an endless supply of cheap kitchen goods (the area caters to restaurant owners).
In addition to the usual saucepans and tea pots, you can also find braziers for grilling yakitori and metal molds for making tai-yaki (sweet cakes shaped like fish). And, perhaps most fascinating, an endless supply of those plastic food models that you see in so many restaurant windows (which are shockingly expensive–a little souvenir plastic sushi role will set you back 1500 yen ($20), while a full plate of plastic spaghetti could be more than $100).
Even if it wasn’t the warren of sin and debauchery that Colleen and I had been expecting, Asakusa Rokku was still a memorable trip to a side of Tokyo rarely glimpsed by most tourists. Only a few blocks away the main street leading up to Senso-ji temple was choked with tourists and shoppers, but in Asakusa Rokku we felt about as far away from the tourism zones as we could get.
You can read Colleen’s much more detailed and historically informed description of Asakusa Rokku here.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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