Lying along the Sumida River, Asakusa 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.
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.
“Thunder Gate” is the protector of Senso-ji 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.
Nakamise is a 250-meter long street that leads up to Sensoji Temple. Lined either side with stalls selling anything from ningyoyaki or taiyaki (shaped pancakes with red bean paste inside) 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, visitors to Sensoji having provided a constant flow of customers over the centuries. Shops are open 9:00-19:30.
Magnificent inner entrance to Sensoji at the end of the Nakamise shopping street. A night photograph of the structure with the Five-Storied Pagoda to the left of the shot is a must.
One of the most beautiful structures in the capital and truly a sight to behold at night.
The legend goes that in 628 CE two brothers found a statue at the bottom of the Sumida River while out fishing and brought it back to their home. The village head, upon seeing the object, recognized it as the Buddhist deity of mercy, Guanyin, and felt compelled to enter priesthood and transform his own house into a temple. This was the beginning of Sensoji Temple and the statue is said to be enshrined in the hondo (main building). The temple is open 6:30-17:00 but you can enter the grounds at any time
One of the most important Shinto shrines in the country. Asakusa Shrine stands in the east of Sensoji 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.
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).
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.
Hanayashiki Amusement Park 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.
Popular bazaar-style store that sells just about anything and everything. There are branches in other major areas of the capital, but for some reason I like the Asakusa branch the best and it always proves popular among visiting friends.
Long commercial street in between Asakusa and Ueno that specializes in selling equipment and supplies wholesale to restaurants. You don’t have to buy in bulk, however, and it has over the years become something of a tourist pull. See here for more details.