In touch with 

Sojiro Okazaki
Courtesy of Sojiro Okazaki

Geisha, rickshaw drivers, combmakers and yaki-imo venders were a cast of colorful characters that made up everyday life in old Edo, but today they're a dying breed. Roland Kelts gets nostalgic with three artisans who keep these vanishing trades alive.

We have been talking for over an hour and Norie is restless. She fidgets in her seat, glances towards the door, smiles tightly in the manner of someone who has had just about enough. “I have an appointment,” she finally announces, breaking out of her stiff-shouldered posture momentarily to reach into her bag. “Listen. If you’ve got any more questions, here’s my email address.”

            As Norie exits, Suzuno-san, the proprietor of the small second-story restaurant and bar in which we are seated purses her lips. “She’s not supposed to do that,” she says sternly. “She’s supposed to ask me before she gives away personal information.”

            Both women are geisha. Suzuno-san is a veteran of over 30 years’ experience. Framed black-and-white photographs of her younger self striking iconic poses line the wall behind me. In them she appears ethereal, untouchably beautiful. In person, she is careful, expedient, and intensely alert—a businesswoman monitoring her public relations.

Norie in full geisha garb

Norie is a woman in her early twenties. For her, the Fuji Rock Festival, keitai denwa, and the vanishing traditions of ancient Japan hold equal appeal. She is a fourth-generation geisha. The daughter of an international businessman, Norie was raised in the US and Japan. She speaks English fluently, describing her life as a geisha as though it were nothing more than a career choice. “I did everything I wanted in University,” she says, “except one thing: becoming a geisha. So, this is what I wanted to do next.

“I saw her performing,” Norie adds, gesturing towards Suzuno-san, “and I knew what I wanted to be. It’s not the visual stuff that attracted me—the clothes or the dances. It’s just the atmosphere, the people. You know, Asakusa is in Tokyo, but it doesn’t feel like Tokyo, right? The people are special. They look after you. I love that sense of community.”

That sense of community is what most of us seek from the past, and Shitamachi—literally “downtown,” or old Tokyo—has become famous for being an enduring remnant of all that is ancient in this otherwise proto-modern megalopolis. Roughly comprising the areas of Asakusa, Mukojima, Tsukudajima, Kita-Senju, Tsukiji, Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi on the city’s East side, Shitamachi’s narrow streets and low-slung roofs evoke both pre- and postwar Japan. The wooden structures, open storefronts, and artisans working by hand on cramped tatami mats offer a striking counterpoint to the looming department stores and advert-blaring frenzy of Shibuya and Shinjuku. 

To no one’s surprise, old Tokyo is disappearing fast. Social critic Alex Kerr, a longtime resident of Japan, recently branded his adopted homeland “the world’s ugliest country,” in part because it seemed incapable of preserving its most valuable historic sites. Kerr argues that Japan’s emphasis on the new, and on kirei, or cleanliness, distracts Japanese from the intrinsic beauty and elegance of the nation’s cultural roots.

Teaching tradition

Suzuno-san blames westernization, a faltering economy, even the terrorist attacks of September 11th for the decline in the geisha business. She opened the restaurant we are sitting in—with its humble décor, squat red chairs and tiny open stage—as a way to present geisha to the public, sacrificing the storied veil of secrecy for a more accessible (and reliable) source of income. “Manners have changed. Japanese eat Western junk food, they don’t know how to use chopsticks. A lot of the rules and manners of the geisha are very strict. Today, Japanese walk while they eat [a former taboo]. They are still entranced by Western things. A lot of our geisha quit because of the demands. You can’t be a geisha and do household chores, so you can’t really be a geisha and get married.

“Before the terrorism,” she adds, “we had lots of Saudi businessmen. But not now. They are too afraid to travel.”

When I point out that a lot of Westerners are obsessed with geisha mystique, Norie perks up. “A lot of foreigners are confused, and I want to help them understand.” She enthusiastically and frankly describes the routines of her world—the names of various organizations and hierarchies—as though she were a tour guide. She hands out copies of articles about geisha along with her meishi.

Keiichi Takeuchi, 15th generation combmaker

This zeal for spreading the gospel of a tradition is the surest sign of its marginalization. I am reminded of jazz musicians in the US whose forerunners played smoky clubs with lines snaking round the corner—and who now perform in universities, or hold tenured positions in their music departments. Stroll the streets of Asakusa and you find people who are not only willing to tell you about what they do, they are prepared to teach you.

Sojiro is a rickshaw driver who proudly proclaims that he was “the first freelance rickshaw driver in Tokyo” when he started pounding the pavement four years ago, after resigning from his post as the manager of a Soapland haunt in Kabukicho. Before that, he was a salaryman with a high school education and few other opportunities. But he was preternaturally restless, he says. So he chucked it all for a ¥1,500,000 rickshaw.

He arrives in a nondescript café with an athletic dash and vigor, in sharp contrast to the slouching, cigarette-toting salarymen at surrounding tables. “I had this strong build ever since I was a child,” he says. “My parents want me to use my brain today. But I love the individuality of tradition. When you’re a rickshaw driver, you’re your own boss. And people’s personalities emerge when I am pulling them around the sites.”

There were allegedly 20,000 rickshaw drivers in Tokyo and some 200,000 across Japan during the Meiji period, when the carts were the most efficient and delightful mode of transportation in a bustling, circuitous city. Japan exported the rickshaw to other Asian countries, where their comfort and convenience made them immediately popular. “Rickshaws offer better sight-lines than the cyclos of Southeast Asia,” Sojiro explains, “because the customer is seated above the driver.” 

Historically, rickshaws bridged the transport gap between the horse and the car. With today’s taxis and subways, they are essentially useless. But recently, rickshaws have seen a surge in popularity that Sojiro describes as “a fad for tourists.” He estimates that 80 percent of his clientele are female, customers with time and money who wish to partake in the romance of a bygone era. He is optimistic about his own prospects because he is passionate about what he does. “When the business gets bad again, if the economy keeps getting worse, the businessmen who own rickshaws will drop out. Only the freelancers like me will remain.”

Like Norie, Sojiro is armed with professional photographs and profiles that explain and promote his profession. Still, it’s hard to grow cynical before a soul of such unrestrained enthusiasm. Sojiro’s shock of dark hair, flecked with gray, bobs playfully as he describes the same Asakusa community that drew Norie away from her Meiji University degree and into the world of geisha. “Most communities are supported by people,” he says, holding an empty ashtray aloft on the tips of his fingers to demonstrate. “That’s healthy. That’s what Asakusa should be.” Now, he curls his fingers around the edges of the ashtray and makes a pulling gesture. “But today, people are starting to hang off the town, to drag it down.” He refers to the businessmen who have opened rickshaw companies to exploit the tourist trade. “Some locals are beginning to resent rickshaws as a drag on the society. But me, I’ll be doing this till I’m 80. At least.”

Making the past by hand

Across the intersection at Ueno Station, where vestiges of Japan’s black market nestle below mass market department stores, sits a square storefront with a wooden sign in the shape of a comb. This storybook setting is the home, office and shop called Jusan-ya, housing the only handmade combmakers in the world.

            A father-and-son team craft handmade combs out of Japanese boxwood, shipped from Kagoshima and the Izu Islands, and sold to the most discriminating consumers: Kabuki theater performers, singers, models and other hair-care customers from around the world.

            An exquisite display of light brown combs sits before the tiny genkan at the entrance, a large step below the tatami mats where the familial duo work diligently beneath fluorescent lights. They, too, have an English-language guide to the crafting and care of the combs, but are more nonchalant about their business. So much energy is expended on the actual work itself, that explaining it seems a pleasant afterthought.

            “I started my training as a teenager,” Keiichi Takeuchi says as he sands down the handle of a new comb, treats the wood with camellia oil, then rubs a deer antler over the edges to create a textured veneer that is sensual to the touch. “It takes years to learn the trade, so I don’t know what will happen after I die.”

            “This was the only shop left standing after the war,” he continues. “A lot of the others burned down. Plus, they had to let the materials lie untouched for a few years before they could start making the combs. So much of the wood had burned, that they didn’t have time to wait.”

            Jusan-ya does not have a web page, nor can you order the combs by phone. You have to arrive in the shop, because the comb makers themselves have to see your hair to gauge the type of comb best suited to your needs. 

            As I walk along the densely crammed highway outside the shop, I am reminded of what the son told me—that the shop used to face a river. Oddly, it’s not hard to imagine water flowing here, but it is hard to imagine the Tokyo I love and live in, where taxis take me home and subways course promptly to their platforms. The paradox of tradition is that we want and need some of the changes it might obstruct.

            It’s easy to wax romantic standing beside a yaki-imo stand on a chilly night. The grilled sweet-potatoes are especially redolent of Japan’s history, incorporating the complications of the nation’s gnarled past. Just after the war, sweet potatoes were one of the few indigenous foods available to a depleted and desperate population, who used to smoke the spuds, wrapped in newspaper and aluminum foil, over a makeshift grill of burning leaves and twigs. Nowadays, the yaki-imo sellers rent their carts, bake the potatoes in a steel firebox heated by burning wood and hot stones, and advertise their goods via a prerecorded hawker and red signs. The postwar association makes the potatoes less popular among elder Japanese, who well remember their preciousness, but understandably don’t wish to. But younger Japanese, and foreigners like me, are happy to dig in.

            As I bite into a yaki-imo on a cold November night, I am reminded of the geisha and her email address. Maybe our best hope for sustaining tradition amid the inevitable onslaught of what’s modern—the violence, and necessity, of history’s forward roll—is to simply stay in touch.



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