Courtesy of Sojiro Okazaki
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
the past by hand
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
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
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.