Where do you live and why did you choose to live there?
I live in Asakusa. It’s got a river and a history and a fascinating role in early 20th century literature as a setting for writers like Junichiro Tanizaki, Kafu Nagai, Yasunari Kawabata, Takuboku Ishikawa and many others. Kawabata’s “Scarlet Gang of Asakusa,” a serialized novel, captures beautifully the riotous, delinquent nature of the prewar neighborhood. Asakusa also has one of Tokyo’s oldest and biggest temples (among hundreds of other shrines and temples) and has for centuries been a place for craftspeople working with leather, pottery, cutlery, textiles and so on. It is also an entertainment hub — it had Japan’s first movie theaters and is minutes’ walk from the former “pleasure quarters” of Yoshiwara, whose lavish Edo-era brothels are now supplanted by seedy soaplands, still on the same grid-patterned streets (and still worth a stroll). Asakusa also has Japan’s oldest amusement park at Hanayashiki, with a rollercoaster whose rickety condition more than makes up for its tiny size in fright value.
For years Asakusa reminded me of Manly, my hometown beachside suburb of Sydney and I think this was due to the salty breeze and the fun parks they each boasted, and both districts’ renown as sightseeing destinations. Funnily, I later discovered the two local councils had a sister city agreement. Asakusa is heavily touristed which can be a bit of a headache, but it’s not hard to get away from the crowds in the side streets. Walk north of the Sensoji temple, across Kototoi-dori to enter the old neighborhood, visit some well-worn coffee shops and Tokyo’s best chicken butcher and yakitori store, Takematsu (take out only, get the liver, the nakayaki wings and momo thighs).
Do you have a local haunt? A café or bar? Somewhere you go for comfort food or just a chat with the proprietor?
The cafes I like are down-at-heel Showa-era (1926-1989) places, some are smoky, and none will win fans for chic decor or gourmet food. So if you’re tempted to try any, be warned. Many visitors will be underwhelmed. But these places are authentic and generally family-run, and won’t be around for much longer. I visit them to read and write in, and people-watch. Lately, I have been making picture books with illustrations and text, and cafés are good places to sketch, leaving one alone at the same time providing distraction. They include Joy and Lodge Akaishi in the pocket north of Sensoji, and La Plage which has operated nearby Matsuya Department Store since the Meiji era, when it began as a “milk hall” (a shop serving milk and light snacks).
Asakusa is loaded with food stores, alongside the countless restaurants. Lately I have been enjoying traditional Japanese sweets and some of the most delicious I’ve found are at the tiny store Ichimatsu Hanare, attached to the villa-like ryotei (kaiseki) restaurant Ichimatsu. The all-women staff experiment with variations on the classical daifuku — bite-size delicacies of fruit or red beans wrapped in chewy rice pastry. They try everything from grapes to mandarins, apricots and strawberries. They also sell a delicious yuzu citrus concentrate you dilute with water for a bracing drink.
Do you have a favorite store (for food, clothes, etc.) and what kind of clothes/accessories/interior goods etc. do you like to shop for?
I like Showa-era shopping malls and Asakusa provides me with a perverse form of entertainment. I only need to ride the escalators at Rox to feel nothing has changed since the 1980s, although the stores including Nitori, Muji, Daiso are up to date. I went on a shopping binge over several years at Asakusa’s scattering of antique stores and developed an interest in old Korean tea bowls and Japanese woodblock prints, and have collected too many of these. I also regularly visit a couple of friends who weave extraordinary scarves with natural dyed and hand-spun thread at a tiny workshop called Tsubame Kobo, in the nearby neighborhood of Torigoe.
3 What is a favorite pastime and where do you like to pursue it?
I take photographs and, as with the illustrated books, combine them with text. I’ve held a couple of exhibitions this past two years and made the photo books Tokyo Shores 1 &2. These projects make a little money and occupy me a lot, so they are more than a pastime. I fund them through my regular job as an editor. For several years I kept a blog called ginzaline.com which documents encounters in my neighborhood, but bugs in the WordPress template have discouraged me from posting lately. In any case my illustrated books help me escape the computer screen and I just finished a trilogy of cartoons featuring food items in philosophical dilemmas (Tempura and Love, Ginger and Love, Gyoza and Love.) They’re available at bookstores like Readin’ Writin’ in Tawaramachi, Flying Books in Shibuya, and Amanatsu Shoten in Higashi Mukojima.
4. What do you like to do on a nice day?
Take photographs. Visit friends in the neighborhood. Walk semi-aimlessly — the trick is to set out with a vague idea for a final destination, then throw plans to the wind whenever someone or something unexpected or unexplored turns up, which it always does.
5. On a day with perfect weather where would you choose to go for a walk and why?
Around the Sumida River or along the railway tracks in Ueno by the bustling stalls and smoky outdoor grills, perhaps the Showa-era café Gallant (Gyaran in Japanese).
6. Do you have a favorite museum (or any other cultural spot)?
The gallery Iwao in Kuramae often shows inspiring photographic and other work. Also the tiny photo book store Monography in Kodenmacho. The Tokyo Museum of Photography currently has a retrospective of Masahisa Fukase, whose collection Ravens is hailed as one of the world’s greatest photo books. The Museum of Roadside Art in Mukojima is an extremely quirky bar in a converted geisha restaurant that shows Showa-era sex museum displays and other artworks, for which I translated the English catalogue.
7. What is your favorite Japanese food?
Small dishes of seasonal things that you order as you go, in a casual environment like an izakaya. Or plain zaru soba (cold soba served on a flat sieve) with delicious tsuyu dipping sauce, such as at Soba Shounin.
8. Where would you go for a special meal?
Bunten Nakamura Shokudo, an izakaya in Akasaka. Open kitchen, cheerful big room, great staff and food.
9 Do you have a favorite onsen ryokan, resort, etc. in Japan?
I usually end up somewhere different every time I get away. But Bessho Onsen in Nagano has beautiful buildings and really good food, unlike many expensive onsen ryokan. I also like somewhat faded holiday towns such as Atami. The MOA museum is often very good and there is a brilliant soba shop there too. I also enjoy really basic local public baths with old neighborhood atmospheres, such as Fukunoyu in Iriya.
10. What is a favorite thing you bought recently in Japan (if possible, something related to Japan)?
A black shoulder bag made in Kobe of 1980s US military cotton duck, at Works in Ueno.
11. How long have you lived in Japan and what brought you here?
I was born in Tokyo, but left with my family when I was 2. I returned about 35 years ago, initially as a stage lighting technician on a working holiday. I was inspired to come here after getting to know my Japanese cousin, who was a music producer and had a wealth of knowledge he was happy to share about Japanese music and film. He died last year (RIP Yoshiaki).
12. What book/film about Japan would you recommend?
Bokuto Kidan (The Twilight Story), wonderfully atmospheric and historically authentic 1960 film directed by Toyoda Shiro, based on a Nagai Kafu novel about a writer who falls into an ill-fated love affair with a Tamanoi (now Higashi Mukojima) prostitute. Stars Akutagawa Hiroshi and Yamamoto Fujiko.
“Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology,” by Jinnai Hidenobu. Gives a great sense of Tokyo as the “Venice of the East”, a city criss-crossed by canals, which is something that’s obvious from the number of place names including “bridge”, but is not much remembered today. Also “Makioka Sisters,” by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro for its affectionate, humorous, searing eye for social manners, and “Kafu the Scribbler,” by Edward Seidensticker, a profile of the writer who made a lively character out of the Sumida River district before the war.
13. What would you take to a friend overseas as a gift?
A locally made bag or a scarf.
14 What do you like about living in Japan?
It works…for most people, and works better than many other countries today. I totally relate to Donald Richie’s view of being a visitor here, both insider and outsider, and constantly learning things. And as I grew up half-Japanese, I have a feeling of being a stranger wherever I am, though it’s only recently I’ve come to see this as a blessing. Tokyo is home. My part of Tokyo is walkable, human scale, has people who look out for each other and care about their culture and the passage of time.
Mark Robinson is a writer and photographer based in Tokyo.