Hidden on a side street somewhere between Kokusai-doori in the Asakusa area and the famous cooking town of Kappabashi is a small white shop with delicately painted Chinese characters that read, Yayoi Okano Souvenir Shop. Inside of the shop is a minimalist gallery with an array of ”tennugui” Japanese hand dyed towels, accessories, stickers, postcards and more. One aspect that stands out in this little shop is that all the items feature erotic themes and imagery. These have been inspired by the Yoshiwara area, which was traditionally home to the red-light district of the Edo era and has been the backdrop for countless novels, kabuki plays, and movies.
Despite efforts to cover up the underground culture of brothels and geisha in this notorious pleasure district, Yoshiwara has been around for almost 400 years. Yayoi Okano, who was born in this area, strongly believes that the idea of replacing the bordellos in deference to new residential and commercial developments is disrespectful to the legacy of Yoshiwara. In 2012, after working in the fashion and magazine industry as an editor, she opened this small souvenir shop and has grown her Shin-Yoshiwara brand to the point of being able to collaborate with renowned artists like Japanese graffiti artist ESOW and major fashion brands like BEAMS Japan.
This small shop has come to represent not only the history of Yoshiwara, but also has burst into the forefront of the Japanese street-culture and fashion scenes. Okano bridges these modern trends with her master understanding of “iki” - the Japanese aesthetic that is an expression of beauty, simplicity, and sophistication. The Shin-Yoshiwara brand uses images of the Yoshiwara district's red-light culture, but with an original and experimental twist. While her designs are erotic, they are always respectful in their portrayal of the female body and the history that goes behind this imagery. This delicate balancing act has led to her designs being accepted by both young and old, in addition to Japanese and international fans.
As more shops like Yayoi Okano Souvenir Shop and the neighboring Kastori Book Store - which also focuses on Yoshiwara's erotica culture and history - continue to open in the area, Okano hopes that others will follow in pursuits of protecting the flavor and history of her hometown. With the Olympics right around the corner, there is a silent fear that Asakusa will slowly start to move away from its history by creating a more sterilized version of itself. Okano believes that rather than erase the history of the area, the best way to stand out is to be proud of the originality, the individuality, and the passion of the Asakusa area.
Yayoi Okano Souvenir Shop
3-27-10-102 Nishi-Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo-to 111-0035