If you ever have a desire to see a bunch of dead and dying goldfish floating in rusty tanks filled with brackish water, look no farther than the Katsushika-ku Kingyo Tenjijo (Katsushika Ward Goldfish Exhibition Area) in Mizumoto Koen. I thought a goldfish exhibition center might be photogenic, and I guess it was, but not quite in the way I expected. This is quite possibly the most depressing tourist attraction I’ve seen in nearly 15 years in Japan, and I write about it here only as a warning not to go. Despite the rather unpleasant smell and the dead fish, it seems quite popular with kids, though.
Soapland (bath house/sex parlor) in the old red light district of Yoshiwara. Japan’s red-light districts have a long and colorful history, and officially date back to the year 1589, when the warlord and effective ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, opened the first one, called Shimabara in the city of Kyoto. The area was hugely popular, and it is said that Hideyoshi himself used to sneak into the area to avail himself of its pleasures. The Tokyo version, Yoshiwara, was built in 1618 and became so famous that it has become synonymous with sex businesses. The phrase “Last night I went to a yoshiwara” can refer to practically any type of sex business in any city.
These areas were seen as somewhat distasteful, and their denizens existed at the outermost fringes of society, but at the same time, pleasure quarters were understood to be fulfilling a necessary role in society. As the gate of Tokyo’s famous ‘nightless city’ of Yoshiwara said, “Lust will not keep…Something must be done about it.” Rather than being perceived as a den of iniquity, the pleasure quarter was seen as providing a place for men to release sexual tension and engage in lustful behavior inside a confined area, so that their harmful desires would not arise in respectable society.
Distasteful as they may have been, however, pleasure quarters were also extremely popular. It is said that at the height of its popularity, there were 3000 women working in the Yoshiwara, and it was just one of several pleasure quarters in Tokyo.
Japan’s red-light districts were strictly controlled, and licenses were issued to both prostitutes and geisha. The areas were walled off, and usually had only a single entrance gate, which was guarded, just as much to prevent indentured prostitutes and geisha from escaping as it was to stop undesirables from getting in.
Soaplands are thinly-disguised sex parlors where men pay for soapy massages performed by naked women using their entire bodies to clean the customer. They get around Japan’s anti-prostitution laws by having the man pay only for the wash. Apparently, though, the man and woman also happen to “fall in love” quite often, deciding to consummate their love at the end of the massage.
If you’re curious to see what left of the district, go to Minowa Station on the subway Hibiya Line and take Exit #3. Walk left (south-east) on Meiji Dori until you come to a big fork in the road. Take the right fork (not Meiji Dori) and continue on for 13 short blocks. That intersection is called Yoshiwara Daimon, and is where the old gate used to be. Turn right and you’ll be in the district. If you need directions, ask for Senzoku 4-chome.
There are some fascinating old photos of the Yoshiwara at http://www.oldtokyo.com/yoshiwara.html.
The Yasukuni Shrine is famous for its nationalistic war museum, war criminals enshrined as gods, and association with extreme right-wing militant groups. The good thing about all the controversy is that when they have a festival, it’s not usually so crowded, and you actually get to see something. This photo is of a scorer at the Kusajishi-Shiki Kyudo tournament, in which archers shoot at a target shaped like a deer. If you’re not too bothered by the shrine’s politics, it’s quite a good festival and very photogenic. It’s held on Sports and Health Day, the second Monday in October. The Yasukuni Shrine’s homepage is here.
More Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan is the blog of a guy living in a tiny hamlet called Shimonohara in Shimane Prefecture. No matter how much of a cityslicker you are, his photos will have you yearning for the country life.
There are also lots of good architectural photos, and pictures of his amazing collection of Japanese masks that he makes himself. Check out the blog at http://ojisanjake.blogspot.com
Here are a couple of samples of his photos:
A shitamachi is a traditional downtown Japanese neighborhood. The word conjures up images of bustling merchant areas with a strong sense of community, narrow streets, and traditional wooden buildings. One of the best places to get a sense of what a shitamachi must have been like is the neighborhood of Shibamata in Tokyo. It’s a little on the touristy side, but the friendly vendors, interesting old buildings, traditional foods, and odd little temples make it an excellent place to spend an afternoon.
Shibamata is most famous for being the home of Tora-san, a popular movie character in the Otoko wa Tsurai Yo series of movies. The main attractions are the atmospheric shopping street and its temples dedicated to the Shichifukujin (The Seven Gods of Good Fortune). Coming out of the station, you’ll see a statue of Tora-san.
You might want to look for a little tourist information office that’s on your right if your back is to the station, just past the Tora-san statue. They have some useful English pamphlets and maps that will help you get to the Shichifuku-jin temples. Follow the crowds and you’ll find yourself on the main shopping street.
At the end of the shopping street is Taishakuten temple, the most famous of the Shichifukujin temples in the area. It’s known for it’s exquisite woodwork. If you’d like to see more of the woodwork, check out Philbert Ono’s great photoguide.jp site. There’s an interesting explanation of the woodcarvings on the Japan Navigator blog.
Another interesting temple in the neighborhood is Ryokan-ji. To get there, turn right when you exit Taishakuten and walk to the big road. Turn left and you’ll see another temple called Shinsho-in on the right side. Turn right at the next big intersection. You’ll go past a big water or garbage treatment plant, and then you’ll come to Ryokan-ji on the left side.
Ryokan-ji is dedicated to the god Hotei.
There are also lots of jizo statues there. There are a bunch more temples in the area, but you’ll need the map to find them as they’re pretty spread out. There is also a Tora-san museum.
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