Hanayashiki, Asakusa

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  • Monday, 23 December 2013 10:10
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Crowd walks past the Nakamise shops along the approach to Sensoji, a Buddhist temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, ca. May 1934. Crowd walks past the Nakamise shops along the approach to Sensoji, a Buddhist temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, ca. May 1934. Photo Courtesy of Kjeld Duits

Hanayashiki, Asakusa

By Kjeld Duits

A MAJOR tourist attraction in Tokyo is the Buddhist temple of Sensō-ji in Asakusa. Every year nearly 30 million visitors pass through the huge entrance gate, and many people are surprised to find a long row of shops on the temple grounds. It actually takes a while to reach the temple buildings.

Some visitors never make it to the temple. Their progress is stalled by the delicious and interesting items for sale. The shops even made an impression on American scholar Alice Mabel Bacon, the first western woman to live in a Japanese household. She visited the temple grounds in 1889 and wrote:

“When we had come as near to the temple as the kurumas (rickshaws) were allowed to approach, we got out to walk the rest of the way; but we had to pass a line of small shops, in which every conceivable variety of toy is kept, and so attractive was the display that we succumbed to the temptation, spent all our time at the toy-shops, and did not reach the temple at all.”

The first shops were authorized between 1688 and 1735 and soon the area near the temple became one of Japan’s main entertainment centers. By the late 19th century there were many theaters, bars and restaurants around the grounds, and the area attracted crowds of all ages.
Asakusa was to Meiji-period (1868-1912) Tokyo what the Shibuya fashion district is to the city today, a place for the middle and lower classes to have fun at little expense.

The top crowd-puller was Hanayashiki. Opened as a flower park in 1853 by gardener Rokusaburo Morita, it soon transformed into an amusement center with teashops, entertainment venues and animal exhibits.

The park’s popular influence would become so large that it even changed the meanings of two Japanese words. Today, the Japanese immediately think of amusement parks when they hear the words hanayashiki and yuenchi even though they originally had very different meanings. Hanayashiki referred to public flower gardens; yuen was the Japanese translation for park. Hanayashiki, considered Japan’s first amusement park, played a major role in altering these meanings.

Hanayashiki’s metamorphosis started around 1872 with the installation of exercise machines, and the first pavilions were opened around 1883.

But it took Kinzo Yamamoto, a young lumber dealer, to complete the park’s transformation after becoming manager in the late 1880s. He had a five-story pavilion called Ozankaku taken to the park in 1887 from 1 2 3 elsewhere in the city. The building is partly visible on the oldest photos above. This “skyscraper” enthralled visitors when it was opened in 1888, two years before a competing 12-story tower was erected a stone’s throw away, which is also visible on one of the photos. The following year, a diorama gallery displaying historical scenes was built. A year later a gramophone was installed at Ozankaku, followed by a merry-go-round.
The park also introduced exotic birds, animals and movies.

Yamamoto’s efforts were a success. “Hanayashiki, located in the fifth district of the park, is the No. 1 entertainment place in the park,” an observer wrote in 1903.

The area next to Hanayashiki followed suit. Japan’s first Ferris wheel was transferred to the park from a fair held in Ueno Park in 1907 and theaters for plays and movies were built.

Hanayashiki never stood still. The world’s first tiger quintuplets were born there in 1923, and then the first lion to be born in Japan in 1931.

The combination of zoo and amusement park, first explored by Hanayashiki, became so popular that it can still be seen in Japan. Until Tokyo Disneyland was opened in Chiba in 1983, animal exhibits were a mainstay of Japanese amusement parks. Many Japanese zoos still offer rides for children.

When the Togo Company took over operations of the park in 1949, a host of new rides were added. In January 2004, Togo declared bankruptcy and sold Hanayashiki to Bandai, a famous Japanese toy company. It still runs Hanayashiki.

In a way, the park has mirrored Japan’s remarkable transformation. It opened in the same year that Commodore Perry’s Black Ships arrived at Uraga Harbor and has adjusted itself to the times ever since. The park looks rather worn out now and, just like Japan, could use some fresh ideas. tj


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Written By:

Kjeld Duits

Residing in Japan for over 30 years, Dutch photojournalist Kjeld Duits is Tokyo Journal's Street Editor. In addition to managing one of the first fashion blogs on the net, and the first to cover Japanese street fashion in English, he owns a vast collection of vintage photographs, illustrations and maps of Japan between the 1860s and 1930s (Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods) and covers news stories and natural disasters for media organizations worldwide.


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