Inking Around in Asakusa, Japan

This Story was originally posted on genki.ink on March 7, 2017.

If you know anything about me, you’d know that my (lengthy) college career has landed me in between two subject areas: Japanese language and Book Arts. Well, just the other day I found myself lucky enough to add to my experience in both of these fields. Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan is typically known for its richness in traditional Japanese culture, not limited to the infamous Asakusa-jinja (浅草神社 — Asakusa Shrine) and Senso-ji (浅草寺 — Asakusa Kannon Temple), but more importantly–to me, anyway–it’s home to some great locations for hands-on time with book arts-related activities. Take this summary of my adventure (along with Shintaro) as a guide for a fun, printerly half-day in this district of Tokyo. If you only have one chance to visit the area, it will even allow for a morning visit to your temple or shrine of choice–which you really should do, since those are what makes Asakusa the most famous.

But first, lunch!

Tiger Gyoza Hall may be a popular chain restaurant, but they’re popular for a good reason.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any book arts-related restaurants, but given the prevalence of lead and sometimes toxic ink pigments in many advanced printing techniques, that may be for the better. One of my absolute favorite foods is Chinese dumplings, one variety of which is called gyoza (餃子) in Japanese, or jiaozi in Chinese. Tiger Gyoza Hall–which has many locations, but one of them is in Asakusa–has the dish down to an art. This location’s specialty is something called the Banana Gyoza. Typically, gyoza dumplings contain some variation of ground pork and green onion, and sometimes cabbage and mushroom and other ingredients are included as well. The same thing applies to the Banana Gyoza. “But why is it called Banana Gyoza, then,” you ask? It’s because these gluttonous masterpieces are the size of an actual banana, as opposed to the standard two-bite dumpling. Oh, and they’re also some of the most delicious gyoza I’ve had in my life. Shintaro and I also ordered the coriander gyoza, tasteful and satisfying as well. However, don’t make the same mistake we did; the portions of their non-dumpling entrées are massive and should be kept to a minimum to allow for more gyoza, and also in case you want to avoid any abdominal ruptures.

Left: Banana Gyoza; Right: coriander gyoza.

Next, to learn some printmaking!

The second-story storefront of Mokuhankan.

One of the most traditional Japanese arts is woodblock printing, or mokuhanga (木版画). Mokuhanga is only one of thousands of methods and techniques found in the world of the book arts, but its history dates back as early as the 8th century. David Bull, the proprietor of Mokuhankan (木版館), is a master of this art and is generous enough to offer near-daily “Print Parties” for a reasonable price to teach the basics of this art to any interested… parties. I’ve been following his work for a couple of years now, and to attend one of these Print Parties was a real treat for me. We each ended up with a set of three prints we printed ourselves, and after browsing through the extensive print shop, we also decided to take home a piece originally designed by an American named Jed Henry that initially led me to Mr. Bull’s work in the first place all those years ago.

From left to right: Shintaro, myself, and Mr. David Bull holding the spoils of our Print Party! The images have been obscured as to avoid… spoiling… the dramatic reveal you’ll experience when you participate.

After you’ve tried it, now you can better appreciate it!

Shintaro and I standing in front of the stunning architecture of the Sumida Hokusai Museum.

The next stop on our list was a new addition to the area, the Sumida Hokusai Art Museum (すみだ北斎美術館), a smaller museum (housed in some stunning architecture) dedicated to the works of Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎), a woodblock printer hailing from the late 18th century. You’d probably recognize one of two of his works, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (神奈川沖浪裏) or Fine Wind, Clear Morning (凱風快晴). The museum offers two types of tickets, both with student discounts, which allow you access to either just the permanent collection or the exhibition space in addition to that. They also have a small gift shop that offers Hokusai-themed goods, such as stickers, handkerchiefs, housewares, and more.

Left: The Great Wave off Kanagawa; Right: Fine Wind, Clear Morning. These are likely the two most iconic prints by Katsushika Hokusai.

Turn your new-found inspiration into a unique memento!

Our last stop on our adventure took us off the beaten path to a small stationery store called Kakimori (カキモリ). They offer services that let you design an original notebook (among other things) with a wide variety of covers, bindings, papers, etc. What drew us there that day was next door to their main shop, an offshoot of Kakimori, called Ink Stand. Ink Stand is a fun, little, experience-oriented store that allows you to spend a good 30 minutes playing around with base inks to formulate a personal color of calligraphy ink. We landed on a beautiful green-blue color that I plan on using with the fountain pen I use to write in my journal. If you don’t have a fountain pen, or even time to make your own ink (it’s about an hour wait after formulating the color), they offer a wide variety at the neighboring store. It’s a fun thing to try out for stationery nerds and lovers of design alike.

At Ink Stand you can mix your own color of ink as a special memento of your day in Asakusa.

As you can tell, Asakusa has plenty to offer by way of book arts-related activities in addition to those for which it’s already well-known. If you ever find yourself in Tokyo looking for enjoyable, unique activities to participate in, check out at least one, if not all, of these locations, and you will surely not be disappointed.

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