Lying along the Sumida River, Asakusa (浅草) is in the heart of Tokyo’s shitamachi. It is unfailingly on any travel guide list, and deservedly so: Asakusa is rich in culture and one of the capital’s most important historical places. It is famous among tourists and locals alike for Sensoji, the most visited temple in Tokyo.
The History of Asakusa
Asakusa actually owes much of its growth to nearby Kuramae. During the Edo period (1603-1868) Kuramae—which means “in front of the storehouses”—was, as its name suggests, a storage district for rice. This staple food was used as payment for the samurai, and middlemen (fudasashi) offered storage space for a small fee. These industrious individuals soon branched out from being mere rice keepers to exchanging the rice for money and then selling it—at a healthy margin—to other local merchants. The proceeds were then lent out to others with interest. Through this process the fudasashi found themselves with a considerable amount of disposable income and those that were more than willing to help them spend it gathered over the years in Asakusa—Kabuki theatres and geisha houses were aplenty.
Things to Do
An excellent tourist information center for the Asakusa area. The top floor is also an observation deck which provides superb views of Nakamise and Sensoji Temple. Free WiFi is also available. On the ground floor near the information desk you can also find all of Taito Ward excellent tourist maps for Asakusa and other areas of the ward such as Ueno and Yanaka.
Asakusa Engei Hall is famous for rakugo (“fallen words”), a comical form of one-man storytelling through a dialogue of two characters. While the cultural references involved in the storytelling mean that near-native Japanese language skills are a must, Engei Hall does offer other performances that tourists can enjoy (e.g. magic shows).
One of the most important Shinto shrines in the country. Asakusa Shrine stands in the east of Sensoji Temple and was built in honor of the three men who founded the famous temple. The Sanja Matsuri, one of Tokyo’s three major festivals, is held in May each year to celebrates these three men.
Magnificent inner entrance to Sensoji at south end of the Nakamise shopping street. The original gate was built in 942 but was destroyed by fire in 1631 and then again in 1945 in the Tokyo air raids, having stood for over 300 years. The structure you see today was built in 1964. The statues either side of the gate’s southern face are guardians of the Buddha.
Kaminarimon (“Thunder Gate”) is the protector of Sensoji Temple. Fujin, the god of wind, and Raijin, the god of thunder, are enshrined on the east and west side of the gate, respectively. Pass under the gate and make your way up Nakamise. As you do, be sure to look up to see the wooden carving under the large red lantern.
24/7 popular bazaar-style store that sells just about anything and everything. There are also cheap restaurants on the 5th floor and Amuse Cafe & Theatre on the 7th floor which offers show and dance performances.
Well regarded and unusual art gallery near Asakusa housed inside a beautiful old Edo warehouse which has managed to survive fires, air raids, and earthquakes. The gallery markets itself as a cafe/bar space and a place for cultural exchanges, and many of the works of art are themed around the historic area.
Amusement park that has been entertaining visitors since 1872. Today it has about 20 rides and attractions (including a “Ninja Challenge”), but for adults the appeal is nostalgic, as the amusement park seems stuck in another era.
A popular night street in Asakusa. The izakaya and yakitori restaurants on either side of the road extend themselves in the evening with plastic tables and chair, making for a lively and enjoyable atmosphere.
A 250-meter long street that leads up to Sensoji Temple lined either side with stalls selling anything from Japanese sweets to Japanese swords and paper umbrellas. Nakamise is more than just a tourist trap—it is actually one of the oldest shopping streets in Japan.
The centerpiece of the Asakusa area with origins dating back to 628 CE when two brothers found a statue resembling the Buddhist deity of mercy at the bottom of the Sumida River. The statue is said to be enshrined in the main temple building.