It is no secret that in parts of Tokyo the store signs read like a roll call of American fast-food habits and one-stop shopping: McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Arby's, Dunkin' Donuts, Seven-Eleven. Tourists visiting the Land of the Rising Sun these days resound with a common complaint: The traditional shops of Tokyo have been malled by escalators, plate glass, and neon.
If you're fed up with the same old ''Made in Japan'' souvenirs and all the American transplants, put on your gumshoes and begin snooping. Waiting for you in Tokyo, Sherlock, are hundreds of centuries-old shops that specialize in handmade Japanese items ranging from toothpicks to harps, whetstones to go boards. Most of the shops have been run by the same family for generations; they sell primarily to Japanese, rarely export, and don't see many tourists.
On my last trip to Tokyo I met an American named Patrick who makes it his business to know the nooks and crannies of the city. ''Anyone who says you can't find traditional Japanese shops in Tokyo,'' Patrick told me, fighting the lunch hour rush on the Ueno subway, ''hasn't been to Asakusa.''
Asakusa (pronounced Ah-sahk'sah), only 15 minutes by subway from Ginza Crossing, is worlds - and decades - apart from downtown Tokyo. This square mile section in northeast Tokyo, a maze of covered passageways and meandering alleys, retains the chaos and color of Edo period Japan (1603-1867). The hub of Asakusa is the 1,300-year-old temple to the goddess Kannon, and its entrance is marked by a pair of giant straw sandals and two ferocious emmas, guardians against evil , in front of whom visitors ''cleanse'' themselves by patting incense smoke on their faces. A stone's throw from the temple's mammoth red paper latterns is Sukeroku, the first stop on my shopping tour with Patrick.
Japanologist Edwin Reischauer once observed that while America is built on the effective use of time, Japan is built on effective use of space. Sukeroku, which sells handmade miniatures of scenes of Japanese life, is a case in point. The shop, tucked away in what was once a stall for used books, cannot accommodate more than two customers at once. Three's a crowd, literally.
Glass cases are jammed with delicate thumb-size clay samurais, street vendors , and Shinto priests. There are matchbox teahouses, candy stands, sushi bars.
''This is a miniature of (a) team of firemen from the Edo period,'' explained Tamae Kumira, whose family has owned the miniature shop for 170 years. The handsome grandmother, wrapped in an emerald kimono and blue apron, squinted at a group of tiny men brandishing white and black flags called sukeshi matoi. ''The first team of volunteer firemen to reach the top of the burning house with standard,'' she explained, ''(then) collected the reward for saving it. Not a bad system, heh?''
Around the corner from Sukeroku is Yono-ya, one of the four traditional comb (kushi) shops in Japan. Since 1673, Yono-ya craftsmen have carved from cedar and boxwood several hundred comb styles (from functional fork shapes to decorative half-moons), and still attract droves of geishas and kabuki actors.
The combs range from 2,000 yen ($8.50) and up, and if the prices don't deter you, the surly shopkeeper will. With a straight face he cajoles: ''According to Japanese custom, purchasing a comb as a gift will bring bad luck.''
On the other hand, good fortune and respect are bestowed with the gift of a fan (sensu), and Kyosen-do, one of Tokyo's oldest fan stores, happens to be nestled in Ningyo-cho, another merchant district overlooked by out-of-town shoppers, Japanese and Western alike.
In Kyosen-do, a young woman in a blue suit is rearranging the fan display in the window. Oval bamboo fans of handprinted cherry blossoms and bonsai trees are replaced with triangular designs of delicate wisteria and rococo gold leaf. Kyosen-do was founded in 1833 in Kyoto by a Buddhist monk. Today, it offers everything from collector's items to 400-yen miniature fan key chains.
Got a splinter? Need your beard trimmed? A few blocks from Kyosen-do is a store which, since 1793, has sold only scissors and tweezers. In the window of Ubuke-ya the shopkeeper exhibits garden shears and barber clippers on a strip of artificial turf. In the shop's warm wooden Edo interior, workers' sandals stand lined up neatly at attention by the door. A wall clock ticks persistently above a glass case of several dozen tweezers, ranging from tiny to elephantine. The owner speaks no English and my loitering seems to make him nervous. I am glad to leave, at last able to pursue the epitomy of Japanese specialty shops, one I was told employed 50 people who turn out nothing but handcarved toothpicks.
As the story goes, the shop called Saru-ya originated in 1704 with one Yamamoto-san. He strolled the streets of Tokyo on New Year's Day with his pet monkey, selling gift toothpicks. His great-grandson improvised on the theme, wrapped the toothpicks in poems and fortunes, and made a bundle, in more ways than one.
Seven generations later the Yamamoto family still works at Saru-ya across the street from the Fuji Bank in Ningyo-cho, where they carve and wrap in purple and green New Year's fortunes countless shapes and sizes of wooden picks. Saru-ya's Cadillac model in toothpicks are handcarved from the laurellike kuromoji tree. On each pick a slender strip of fragrant camphor bark is left.
The variety of toothpicks and toothpick accessories (lacquered boxes, tiny bamboo baskets, batik pouches, postage-stamp-size mirrors) is impressive but the reverence paid the product is even more astonishing. As I pointed to one wooden pick after another, the women behind the counter unlocked the glass case, gingerly reached inside, gently cupped the sample toothpick in her hands, and raised it for me to examine. She elevated that sliver of
wood as jeweler might a sapphire or emerald. How could anyone leave without renewed esteem for toothpicks and the Japanese?
A word to the wary wanderer: Remember that most of Tokyo's street signs are in Japanese kanji characters, which might as well be Greek to you, and that cab drivers don't speak English. Fodor's Japan guidebook recommends that tourists carry a matchbook from their hotel to show to the cab driver. Decent but hardly fail-safe advice. Recently, so the story goes, an American shopper got lost, hailed a taxi, whipped out his hotel matchbook, and was driven straight to the match factory.
And one important acknowledgement: scores of Tokyo's specialty shops (including those mentioned above) are listed in the Japanese guidebook classic ''Kites, Crackers, and Craftsman'' by Camy Condon and Kimiko Nagasawa, (Shufunotomo Company. $7.50). Though somewhat dated, it remains unrivaled as the unconventional shopper's guide to Tokyo. I recommend it. Practical information
Here are the addresses of the stores mentioned in this article: Sukeroku - 3- 1 Asakusa 2-chome, Taito-ku; Yono-ya - 37-10 Asakusa 1-chome, Taito-ku; Kyosen - 2 Ningyo-cho 2-chome, Nihonbashi Chuo-ku; Ubukeya - 4 Ningyo-cho 3-chome, Nihonbashi Chuo-ku; Saru-ya - 1 Koami-cho 1-chome, Nihonbashi Chuo-ku.