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The secrets of Asakusa lantern

Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin Store

When visiting Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, one cannot miss the Kaminarimon Gate and its huge red paper lantern. But who is behind the creation of this beautiful craft? We set off to meet Norio Yamada, who hand-draws on lanterns.

Asakusa lanterns workshop: Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin

In Asakusa, it takes two craftsmen to make a lantern. The first one makes the structure of the lantern. The second one paints on it. The Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin workshop makes Edo hand drawing lamps. It has been in operation for nearly 300 years. This particular skill of writing on lanterns has been passed down there for 8 generations. Today, it is Mr. Norio Yamada who perpetuates the tradition.

The workshop’s main customers are restaurants, bars and boutiques, who have their establishment’s name inscribed on lanterns to hang on their storefronts. But lanterns are also in Japanese culture an object attracting good fortune and luck. This is why Mr. Yamada also receives orders for gifts for children’s birthdays, weddings or festivals.

Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin Store
Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin Store

Writing on the lantern is a delicate process. The style used is called Edo Moji or the Edo Signs, referring to the historical period in which it was created. Since the lanterns are not smooth, the signs cannot be drawn in one stroke. You must first trace the outline of each letter before filling them.

It takes 40 minutes to write a name on a very small lantern and 5 to 6 hours for a larger lantern that requires an inscription on two sides or the design of a coat of arms.

When we ask Mr. Yamada why he dedicated his life to lantern painting, he explained that it came naturally to him, having bathed in this environment since his childhood.

However, this is not the case for all members of the family, since his own father decided not to indulge in it. So, after starting to learn lantern writing for a few months, he decided to switch to a more modern profession.

Mr. Yamada therefore took over after his grandfather. When we ask him who will carry on this know-how after him, he tells us that he does not know yet. Few people want to learn this tough job. However, he hopes that his son, now 6, will develop an interest in this art.

Asakusa Lantern
Kaminarimon Lantern

The secret behind the Kaminarimon Asakusa lantern

Kaminarimon and its red lantern are the symbol of the Asakusa district. When visiting Tokyo, one cannot fail to take the iconic souvenir photo. On the front of the lantern are written the characters Kaminarimon 雷 門 and on the back Furaijinmon 風雷 神 門. These symbols refer to the two statues framing the door which represent the god of wind and the god of thunder. Also inscribed on the lantern is the date it was replaced, currently April 2020. A new lantern is usually hanged once every ten years.

But have you ever noticed the little plaque on the back of the lantern? In 1960, the head of the Matsushita Electronics company fell ill and decided to go to Sensoji Temple to pray for his health back. Once he felt better, he decided to donate this lantern. Today you know Matsushita Electronics by its new name, Panasonic. But the name inscribed on the plaque remains the original one to commemorate the roots of the company.

Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin Store
Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin Store

Your own lantern with your name: is it possible?

What could be better than a lantern to decorate your home and give a room a Japanese atmosphere? And what could be better if this lantern is personalized with your first name? If you are interested in your own lantern with your name handwritten by Mr. Yamada, let us know in the comments below this article.

Yamazaki-ya Genshichi Chōchin Store

Website: here
Address: 2 Chome-9-9 Kaminarimon, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0034

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Asakusa’s Best Shops: Kanaya Brush

Kanaya Brush

Let me introduce you to one of Asakusa’s best shops. Not far from Nakamise Dori Shopping Street and Senso-ji Temple, is a brush shop unlike any other called Kanaya Brush. They only work with natural hair from animals. This family owned business is now run by Mr. Hideo Ouchi. We met with him to learn more about this unique craft.

Asakusa's best shops
Kanaya Brush

Asakusa’s best shops: Kanaya Brush

The Kanaya Brush company was founded, in 1914, when Mr. Ouchi’s grandfather came from Kyoto to the capital, and opened a shop selling animal hair toothbrushes. Little by little, the company grew and started offering brushes of all kinds: for hair, for body, for clothes…

Unfortunately, our modern world soon saw the boom of nylon brushes, and the sales of animal hair brushes declined. But Mr. Ouchi’s family did not give up and bet on the return in fashion of products made from more natural materials. Thus, 25 years ago, their efforts finally paid off. Sales of animal hair brushes are growing again as our society is looking for more eco-friendly options. Mr. Ouchi tells us that, when you start using one of his brushes, you can no longer go back to nylon ones, the difference in quality being unforgettable.

Asakusa's best shops: Kanaya Brush
Kanaya Brush

Why use an animal hair toothbrush?

Kanaya Brush toothbrushes can be used for 3 months. While nylon toothbrushes will lose their hair, Mr. Ouchi ones will remain just as full, the hair will only shorten over time. Thanks to the hair elasticity, the brush will clean the teeth while gently massaging the gum tissues.

Depending on the hair used, brushes will be more or less hard. There is one for everyone. Harder brushes are made with pig hair. Horses hair is used for intermediate brushes, the mane hair being softer than the tail hair. Finally, the softer brushes are made from a mixture of horse and goat hair.

Asakusa's best shops: Kanaya Brush
Included in the Asakusa box: toothbrush made with horse hair

A million toothbrushes sold?

Upon entering the store, our attention is immediately drawn to a large banner that reads: “Toothbrushes for a million people”. It was Mr. Ouchi’s grandfather himself who made this banner. Indeed, his wish was for a million people to use his toothbrushes.

Today, we can say that this goal has been achieved since more than a million toothbrushes have been sold. But Mr. Ouchi keeps the banner hanging in memory of his grandfather and to remember the new goal he set for himself: to introduce his toothbrushes not only to Japan people, but to the whole world.

We are very proud to be able to help him get a little closer to his dream, by introducing to you his toothbrushes in the Peko Peko Box Asakusa!Subscribe to Peko Peko Box so you don’t miss it as well as the other items from Asakusa’s Best Shops featured in the box.

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Nakamise dori: Miniature Edo-style toys

Asakusa, miniature Edo style toys shop

On Nakamise dori, the shopping street going from the Kaminarimon gate to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, is a small store that you might not notice. A small shop for small toys. Indeed, the shop sells traditional miniature Edo-style toys. There, we met with Mister Yoshitaka Kimura, the owner. He introduced us to this delicate and little-known craft.

Miniature Edo-style toys shop on Nakamise dori
Mister Yoshitaka Kimura in his miniature Edo-style toys shop on Nakamise dori

The Edo period and sumptuary laws

During the Edo period, artisans developed the skills to make smaller and smaller items. The reason? The sumptuary laws issued during this time.

With the establishment of the Edo period (1615-1868), the shogunate was determined to strengthen its control and maintain peace by creating a stable society. To do so, the class system was tightened with strong social and economic rules.

At the top of society, the samurai, followed by farmers, artisans and, at the bottom of the pyramid, merchants. Nobility, shinto priests and Buddhist monks were exempt from this class system.

To maintain this hierarchy, the shogunate issued sumptuary laws. They aimed to control outward signs of wealth, by regulating how to dress or how to decorate one’s house. For example, merchants couldn’t wear clothes with gold and silver trimming. While farmers could only wear hemp and cotton clothing. Even the upper classes were constrained by certain rules. Thus, women couldn’t bring along more than one maid.

In opposition to those laws, the Edo period was full of creativity and innovation. The merchants, stucked at the bottom of the hierarchy but getting very prosperous at that time, did not fail to find ingenious ways to expose their new wealth.

For example, one can still find today houses which, from the street, appear to have only one storey, when in fact have two, but only visible once inside. These creative architectures made it possible to circumvent the laws on housing constructions. This is also why artisans developed the skills to make miniature toys. Less ostentatious than large and luxurious items, the smaller the toy, the finer the details, and the higher the price.

Miniature Edo-style toys

Sukeroku shop on Nakamisa dori, Asakusa

Founded in 1866, Sukeroku, on Nakamise dori, is the last remaining shop selling Japanese miniature Edo-style toys. Now run by 84 years old Yoshitaka Kimura, his family has passed-on this tradition, introducing the skills of craftsmen for 5 generations.

Nowadays, there are fewer and fewer craftsmen capable of such precision. And they are scattered throughout Japan. Mr. Kimura made it his mission to promote this unique know-how by continuing to showcase their work in his shop.

Our time has seen a return to fashion for ostentatious objects, on the principle “the bigger it is, the more expensive”. But for Mr. Kimura, anyone can create a big item. While only a few specialists can have the patience, the delicacy and the skills to make such precise miniatures.

If you find yourself in the Nakamise dori shopping street, do not hesitate to go visit Mr. Kimura and admire the delicate work of the artisans.

Edo style toy

Nakamise dori – Sukeroku

Website: www.asakusa-nakamise.jp/store/pop.php?sid=95
Address: 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0032

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Kumade Market: Celebrate the New Year in Tokyo

Kumade

The kumade market is a Japanese New Year tradition taking place during the month of November. Kumade are beautiful Japanese handicrafts. They are mostly found hanging in shops and businesses. But these are not just decorative items. In this article, you will get to know more about kumade.

What is a Kumade?

A kumade is a bamboo rake. But then, what has it to do with the New Year? Well, kumade is said to “rake good fortune” for the coming year. To do so, kumade are decorated with many symbols to attract prosperity, happiness, and luck to their owner. It is mainly business owners that buy kumade before the end of the New Year, to make their business successful for the coming year. The size and price of kumade varies, the smallest cost 2000 or 3000 yen (19 to 28 dollars), and the larger ones 50,000 yen (480 dollars) or more and can weigh up to 150kg.

Kumade Market
Kumade Market

The meaning behind Kumade

You will find many lucky symbols on the kumade. For example, koban coins, the currency used during the Edo period, or rice barrels, symbols of abundant harvests and therefore prosperity. There are also often small statuettes of turtles or cranes. It is in fact said in Japanese culture that these two animals live 10,000 and 1,000 years respectively. They are therefore a symbol of good omen and longevity. Two other animals are also often represented. First, sea bream. Pronounced “tai” in Japanese, the sound of its name resonates with the word “omodetai” meaning “to celebrate”. Finally, the owl, pronounced in Japanese “fukuro”. And “fuku” in Japanese means “happiness”.

At the end of the year, people bring back to the shrine their old kumade. Old kumade are burned. Large boxes are thus installed in front of the kumade market to collect them. Being a talisman, it is indeed a bad omen to simply throw your old kumade in the trash. Each New Year, therefore, you have to buy a new kumade, preferably bigger than the one you had the previous year because it is a sign that your business is prospering. On the contrary, if the acquired kumade is smaller, it is not a good omen.

Kumade Market
Kumade Market

Kumade Market: Ootori Shrine in Asakusa

Several kumade markets take place in Tokyo during the month of November. We went to Ootori Shrine in the Asakusa district as it is where this tradition started. Two or 3 markets take place during the month. The first one is called Tori no Ichi. It takes place on the first rooster day of November, according to the lunar calendar. The second market, Ni no Tori, takes place on the second rooster day of the month, 11 days later. Depending on the year, there may be a third market (called San no Tori). The market is open all day, 24 hours non-stop. During each market, more than 100 stalls line up. Each stand tries to be the most creative one by selling the most nicely decorated kumade. All around the shrine, there are also food stalls, in the spirit of the Japanese matsuri.

A special ritual follows the biggest sales. To signify that the deal is closed, the seller and the buyer clap their hands several times following the rhythm of 3,3,3 and 1. This ritual is tejime.

If you are in Tokyo during the month of November, the kumade market is definitely somewhere to go. And why not buy a little one to bring back home?

Kumade Market
Kumade Market