No trip to Tokyo will be complete without a visit to Asakusa. Tokyo’s former Red Light District is possibly the most heritage rich neighbourhood in the city. Here are a few places to see and things to do in Asakusa.
Things to see in Asakusa
Located outside of the city during the Edo period, Asakusa was the center of entertainment and Buddhist spirituality from the 17th century until the 1940s. The area was historically dotted with kabuki theatres, a form of traditional Japanese theatre considered UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, and later with modern types of theatres and cinemas. Most of the district was destroyed during the WWII air raids and whereas Sensoji Temple, one of the main draws to today’s Asakusa, was rebuilt, the entertainment never returned.
Although Asakusa can be easily explored on foot, in order to really understand Tokyo’s and Japan’s history, a guide is most recommended. I went on a private Tour of Asakusa with Context Travel, my trusty go-to company for expertly-led culture tours, and was paired with Jay, an Urban Development expert who shared an incredible amount of detail and knowledge about Sensoji, the area and the various elements that we came across with during our two hour tour.
Sensoji Temple grounds are reached via two gates at the beginning and end of a shopping street. Aside from the gates, the street and the temple, which we walked with Jay, there are also other shrines and interesting little things to see and do in Asakusa. We started at the Tourist Information center of Asakusa where we got an intro from the view point at the top floor where Jay revealed one of the secrets for not getting lost in Tokyo: look for a tall building. Since Tokyo is prone to earthquakes and fires, as major buildings used to be built in wood. Because the city has been burnt down several times, the streets are designed to provide enough space for people inside buildings to escape in case of evacuations. So a tall building will always be surrounded by a wide street that would accommodate everyone trying to run out from a building. That is also why there aren’t that many tall buildings in Tokyo, because of the need for a wide street nearby, which is limited by the city’s high population density.
1. Kaminari Gate
Across from the Tourist Information center of Asakusa you will see Kaminari Gate. First built in the 10th century, the gate holds a large red and black lantern and is flanked by four statues, two on either side, of Shinto and Buddhist Gods. As with most other sights in Tokyo, Kaminari Gate was burnt to the ground and rebuilt at least four times, last one in 1960 after WWII. Check out the bottom of the lantern for an interesting dragon wood carving as Sensoji Temple is officially known as Golden Dragon Mountain.
After Kaminari Gate you will find yourself in Nakamise, a street lined up with stores selling local snacks, traditional items, souvenirs, food, etc. The street can be really packed and hot in the summer as there is limited shade under the stall’s umbrellas. You could spend a long time here having a look at the many items on display from lanterns to paper fans, miniature key rings, sweet snacks, chopsticks, china and other more mass market souvenirs like t-shirts or children toys.
3. Hozomon Gate
Before reaching Sensoji you will cross another gate. Hozomon Gate stands right in front of Sensoji and before the ablution fountains, an interesting design as well, note the dragon bronze statues spilling the water and wash your hands (and mouth if you wish) with the wooden ladle. There is also incense burning in a enter bowl which i used to purify and treat ailments, feel free to spread it on any area of concern.
Hozomon is a large two-storey gate whose top floor houses Sensoji’s treasures. Hozomon burnt down less than Kaminari but today’s structure also dates from after the war and was built using fire resistant materials. The gate is also interesting because of the two giant sandal status at either side.
The gate is also at the same level as the 5 storey pagoda, something that is pretty rare in Tokyo because of all the almighty fires, but the Goju no To pagoda cannot be visited because it is a graveyard.
4. Sensoji Temple
No doubt the most important sight in Asakusa is Sensoji, a Buddhist temple originally built in the 7th century but rebuilt after WWII. The legend says that in the 7th century, two brothers found a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, in the River and even though they didn’t want to take it out of the water, the statue kept coming back. Eventually, Sensoji was built to host the Goddess Kannon. Sensoji’s early construction also makes it the oldest temple in the city, even if todays construction is post-war.
Sensoji Temple is large, always packed and very colourful. The high ceiling and the bright red of the columns and walls gives it a fiery appearance. Do look up as the ceiling’s paintings are quite impressive. Locals come to the temple regularly for celebrations and ceremonies as it is a working Buddhist Temple so the inside room at the back of the open area is reserved for those who have booked a ceremony. If you want to learn more about your fortune, you can make a 100 yen donation and pick a numbered stick from a tin box which will lead you to one of the drawers from a wooden chest of drawers containing a paper with the oracle, which has an english translation, looking more like it had been done on Google Translate. With the help of our guide I found a better translation to the one proposed which talked about large birds and cages and was too far fetched for my own interpretation.
5. Asakusa Shrine
To the right of Sensoji there is a smaller ancient Shinto shrine devoted to the founders of Sensoji, the two men who found Kannon in the river and the elder that built the temple for the deity. It is remarkably smaller and less flash but there are often live music or other celebrations happening on its grounds.
6. Halls and old stone bridge
To the left of Sensoji there are various shrines and halls as well as Tokyo’s oldest stone bridge which crosses a cute lush garden and hangs above a pond with koi fish. The area is more peaceful and a great place to take a shaded respite from the crowded temple grounds.
7. Take a rickshaw tour
Another funny thing to do in Asakusa, perhaps after you have finished the tour and are looking to just people watch on a relaxed ride, is to jump on one of the many human-powered rickshaws that consist of a rather toned and fit Japanese man wearing tight black and white lycra pulling a horse carriage around Asakusa. He will also add in some colour and flair with comments, if you are lucky and he speaks English, and it is a rather amusing way to complement the walking tour.
8. Plastic food stores
As I live in Asia, plastic food is something that I have become used to so it either surprises me nor does it even get my attention although, I will admit, some of the creations at Japanese restaurants are pretty impressive. But if you are less used to this next level from the menus with photos, Sensoji Temple is very near the mecca for all things plastic food. Head to Kappabashi Street if you want to buy some funky pieces of fake food.
9. Soba noddles being made
This is a free and daily show at several of the noodle stores around the temple grounds. Many of the stores still hand made and cut the noodles manually and the chefs in some of the restaurants do so in front of the window so you can see how it all unfolds from the street. There are many soba noodle places to top the day.
10. Sumida River architecture
Asakusa is also home to lots of weird looking buildings, especially along the Sumida River which is a few steps away from the Tourism center. You can’t miss two of Asahi Beer buildings, one is shaped to look like a beer pint and the other has a large golden flame to represent the workers. Next to them, you can see Tokyo’s Skytree, another Eiffel Tower looking building, and the tallest structure in Japan.
Things to do in Asakusa
Although most of the area is now new and with the WWII destruction most of the “play” part of Asakusa was never reconstructed, you can still find small eateries and holes in the wall which sell you yakitori or other traditional Japanese foods with copious amounts of beer. It is particularly busy in the evenings. Some of the smaller streets to the left of the temple are fashioned to look like the older street, the pavement painted as if it was made of mud and the smaller shops looking like the old wooden houses. Aside from Izakaya and yakitori restaurants you can still find some of the Kabuki theatres where you can watch traditional Japanese performances. Check out Asakusa Engei Hall where it is said the next big stars are found.
For the real insights into Asakusa and to understand more than just to observe, book a tour of Asakusa with Context Travel, the only truly small group tour company where the guides are expert docents, in this case, my guide was an expert and PhD in Urban planning and very well versed on Japanese history with a real passion and bottomless knowledge.
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