If you are exploring the traditional downtown area of Tokyo, Asakusa is a place not to be missed. Not only because it has Senso-ji Temple and Asakusa Shrine – one of the most visited religious symbols of Tokyo, but also because of many other attractions it has to offer. Here is the route, recommended for those who want to get the most from Asakusa area if time is limited:
To get to Asakusa, exit 1 of Asakusa station of Ginza line is the most convenient (you can also take Tobu Skytree line, Asakusa line or Tsukuba Express to get there). You will come out of the station just near Kaminarimon gate of Senso-ji shrine. Literally “kaminarimon” means “thunder gate” and you will see a lantern with two statues on the both sides. The statues represent the guardian gods of thunder (Raijin, west side) and of wind (Fujin, east side). These gates were first built in 941 and moved to their current location in 1635. They were burnt several times before final reconstruction of their present structure in 1960s.
But before going inside to explore, look to the other side of the road first. The 8-story building with an interesting design of wooden shaped floors is Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center. We suggest you to drop by this place first, not only because you can get the information you need, but also because they offer the rent of a“talking pen” for the day with a map just near the information desk! Yes, you may get a chance to test a Japanese high-tech gadget, which will serve as a guide for you during your sightseeing in Asakusa. It is available in Japanese, English and Chinese, and you can rent it from 9 am to 7 pm for 500 yen (with a returnable deposit of 2000 yen). Also do not miss the opportunity to view the whole area first from the viewing deck, located on the 8th floor of this building. From there, there is a nice view to Tokyo Sky Tree and Asahi Beer Headquarters with its golden symbol of “Flaming Ornament” beside, located just on the other side of Sumida river, and to Nakamise street, situated behind Kaminarimon gate, could be observed. Now that we have a general idea where we are, let’s move on.
Holding a high-tech “talking pen” guide in your hand, keep in mind that Japan is a country loyal to its traditions. Why don’t you experience one of them by riding jinrikisha – literally translated as “human-powered vehicles”- known as a rickshaw for a guided tour? Although relatively costly, English-speaking rickshaw drivers will provide you with information about the neighborhood, which you will not find in any guidebooks! For instance, the legend about Nezumi Kozo – Japanese “Robin Hood” or 12 raccoons (tanuki), ready to share with passers-by ,11 powers (such as love, luck, health, etc), comedians’ street, or places where Japanese celebrities dine: all this information and much more might be heard from these charismatic guides! The routes and costs of the tour differ starting from 10 min (2000 yen for a person, 3000 yen for 2 people) to 3 hours or more. But it is definitely worth a try, considering that it is commonly believed rickshaws are an invention of the Japanese dating back to 1860s. Our suggestion is to take the ride around the area all the way down to Senso-ji, so you can walk down by yourself on the way back through Nakamise street.
Historical entertainment area
On the West side of Nakamise road, you will find Orange Street, famous for its restaurants and shops. Tempura and soba are especially popular in this area. From sweets you can try dorayaki – Asakusa speciality (Kamejyu is a recommended place), which is a red-bean pancake. Monjyayaki – Japanese pan-fried batter is another Asakusa delicacy. If you are familiar with Japanese baseball or loved to watch Astro Boy comics, old-style European pastry shop “Angelus” is a place for you. This place is popular with many famous clients such as Japanese baseball legend Sadaharu Oh, “the Godfather of anime” Osamu Tezuka, popular author Shotaro Ikenami and others. Here you can also find a well-known sweet potato shop. For drinks, try Hoppy street with around 20 Japanese bars, which is lit up in the evenings with the lights from each of the bars.
Another sightseeing spot is theatre street, so called Rokku street. If literally translated from Japanese it means “Sixth Broadway”. The name dates back to the time, when Asakusa ward was divided into 7 districts and all entertainment facilities were relocated to this area. This is the place of the greatest concentration of Japanese historical entertainment services, such as kabuki, comedy, etc. You can find Asakusa Public Hall (theatre hall) here, which usually holds Kabuki performance during the whole of January for the celebration of New Year. Many popular Japanese comedians begun their career in this area.
Asakusa is also home to Hanayashiki – the oldest amusement park in Japan. “Flower park” was opened in 1853 and holds the oldest steel roller coaster in Japan. Hayashiki is just behind Senso-ji and we recommend you to end your trip on rickshaw somewhere in this area, so you can walk to Senso-ji and enjoy the scenery.
Asakusa is a place where one can observe the combination of Buddhist and Shinto beliefs in one spot. Senso-ji, being a Buddhist temple is just near Asakusa-jinja (located to the east of temple), which is a Shinto shrine, dedicated to the founders of Senso-ji. Legend has it that in the early 7th century, two fishermen found a small statuette of a Buddhist god – Kannon. Then, supported by the landlord, they laid a foundation to Senso-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo. The main hall is the most visited spot. On the west side of Senso-ji, you can see 5-storied pagoda. According to one version of the story, 5 stories represent 5 elements, such as earth, water, fire, wind and sky.
Denboin Temple, located close by, is one of the Senso-ji halls with a beautiful garden, where the head priest has resided for generations. It is not open to the public though.
Sanja-matsuri (Sanja festival) is one of the largest festivals in Japan held in May. It is said to attract around 1.5-2 million people every year. This festival dates back to 1312 as Boat Festival (Funa Matsuri). On these days you will see crowds carrying “mikoshi” (portable Shinto shrine) with cheers. Food stalls all over the place with Japanese delicacies makes the festival even more enjoyable.
Also at Senso-ji Temple grounds, you can watch Golden Dragon Dance (Kinryu no Mai) in March 18 and October 18 and White Heron Dance (Shiranagi no Mai) on the 2nd Sunday in April and November 3rd every year.
From the main hall of Senso-ji, if you look towards Nakamise, you will see a gate with two giant sandals. They are thought to guard the place from evil forces. The gate itself is called Hozomon and from there Nakamise shopping street starts. It is a 250 m long road, where you can find different kind of souvenirs and traditional sweets. It is one of the most popular tourist spots for affordable Japanese dress, souvenirs and sweets.
Tokyo lights up
We recommend you finish your tour by taking a cruise down the Sumida River. At night, Tokyo lights up incredibly and it is fantastic to see it from the river. Tokyo Water Cruise from Asakusa Station is located just beside the river near the bridge. From Kaminarimon, if you go in the direction of Tokyo Sky Tree, it will be just on your way. Boats run once or twice an hour from 10 am to 5 pm (sometimes later). The duration is from 20 to 40 minutes long. Depending on your preference, you might decide to go to Odaiba, offering romantic night life or Hinode-pier, which is just near Tokyo tower. Both destinations are within walking distance to several train stations.
If you prefer heights to cruising, another option for you is to go to Tokyo Sky Tree, recently built, it is the highest tower in the world (634 m). It also lights up at night giving the area a special atmosphere. It is a 30-40 minute walk from Asakusa station or you can take a train to Oshiage station. There are two observation decks at the height of 350 m and 450 m. At 350 m there is a glass floor, where you can experience the excitement of observing all 350 m just looking below your feet. At 450 m height you will be able to view the whole of Tokyo. If the weather permits, you might be able to see Mt. Fuji as well. Operation hours of observations decks are from 8 am to 10 pm. Please choose your time to visit wisely, because it might be crowded due to its popularity. Over 50 different shops and restaurants are located on floors 1 to 5 (called Solamachi) and you can also find interesting exhibitions and a planetarium on the other floors.
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