Start: Hama Rikyu Garden (Shiodome Station) or Asakusa Station (exit 1 or 3)
Finish: Kappabashi Dori (station: Tawaramachi)
Time: Allow approximately 5 hours, including the boat ride
Best Times: Tuesday through Friday, when the crowds aren't as big, or Sunday, when you can join a free tour, but:
Worst Times: Sunday, when the shops on Kappabashi Dori are closed
If anything remains of old Tokyo, Asakusa is it. This is where you find narrow streets lined with small residential homes, women in kimono, Tokyo's oldest and most popular temple, and quaint shops selling boxwood combs, fans, sweet pastries, and other products of yore. With its temple market, old-fashioned amusement park, and traditional shops and restaurants, Asakusa preserves the charm of old downtown Edo better than anyplace else in Tokyo. For many older Japanese, a visit to Asakusa is like stepping back to their childhood; for tourists, it provides a glimpse of Tokyo's past.
Pleasure-seekers have flocked to Asakusa for centuries. Originating as a temple town back in the 7th century, it grew in popularity during the Tokugawa regime, as merchants grew wealthy and whole new forms of popular entertainment arose to cater to them. Theaters for Kabuki and Bunraku flourished in Asakusa, as did restaurants and shops. By 1840, Asakusa had become Edo's main entertainment district. In stark contrast to the solemnity surrounding places of worship in the West, Asakusa's temple market had a carnival atmosphere reminiscent of medieval Europe, complete with street performers and exotic animals. It retains some of that festive atmosphere today.
The most dramatic way to arrive in Asakusa is by boat from Hama Rikyu Garden, just as people used to arrive in the old days. If you want to forgo the boat ride, take the subway directly to Asakusa Station and start your tour from stop no. 2. Otherwise, head to:
1. Hama Rikyu Garden
Located at the south end of Tokyo (station: Shiodome, exit 5, then a 5-min. walk), this garden was laid out during the Edo Period in a style popular at the time, in which surrounding scenery was incorporated into its composition. Today, skyscrapers are the only surrounding scenery, but it does contain an inner tidal pool, bridges draped with wisteria, moon-viewing pavilions, and teahouses.
Boats depart the garden to make their way along the Sumida River hourly or so between 10:35am and 4:15pm, with the fare to Asakusa costing ¥720 ($6/£3). Although much of what you see along the working river today is only concrete embankments, I like the trip because it affords a different perspective of Tokyo -- barges making their way down the river, high-rise apartment buildings with laundry fluttering from balconies, warehouses, and superhighways. The boat passes under approximately a dozen bridges during the 40-minute trip, each one completely different. During cherry-blossom season, thousands of cherry trees lining the bank make the ride particularly memorable.
Upon your arrival in Asakusa, walk away from the boat pier a couple of blocks inland, where you'll soon see the colorful Kaminarimon Gate on your right. Across the street on your left is the:
2. Asakusa Information Center
Located at 2-18-9 Kaminarimon (tel. 03/3842-5566), the center is open daily from 9:30am to 8pm and is staffed by English-speaking volunteers from 10am to 5pm. Stop here to pick up a map of the area, use the restroom, and ask for directions to restaurants and sights. On Sundays, volunteers give free guided tours of Asakusa at 11am and 2pm (arrive 10 min. earlier). Note the huge Seiko clock on the center's facade -- every hour on the hour from 10am to 7pm, mechanical dolls re-enact scenes from Asakusa's most famous festivals.
Across the street is the:
3. Kaminarimon Gate
The gate is unmistakable with its bright red colors and 220-pound lantern hanging in the middle. The statues inside the gate are of the god of wind to the right and the god of thunder to the left, ready to protect the deity enshrined in the temple. The god of thunder is particularly fearsome -- he has an insatiable appetite for navels.
To the left of the gate, on the corner, is:
4. Tokiwado Kaminari Okoshi
This open-fronted confectionery has been selling rice-based sweets (okashi) for 250 years and is popular with visiting Japanese buying gifts for the folks back home. It's open daily 9am to 9pm.
Once past Kaminarimon Gate, you'll find yourself immediately on a pedestrian lane called:
5. Nakamise Dori
This leads straight to the temple. Nakamise means "inside shops," and historical records show that vendors have sold wares here since the late 17th century. Today Nakamise Dori is lined on both sides with tiny stall after tiny stall, many owned by the same family for generations. If you're expecting austere religious artifacts, however, you're in for a surprise: Sweets, shoes, barking toy dogs, Japanese crackers (called sembei), bags, umbrellas, Japanese dolls, T-shirts, fans, masks, and traditional Japanese accessories are all sold. How about a brightly colored straight hairpin -- and a black hairpiece to go with it? Or a temporary tattoo in the shape of a dragon? This is a great place to shop for souvenirs, gifts, and items you have no earthly need for -- a little bit of unabashed consumerism on the way to spiritual purification.
Take a Break -- If you're hungry for lunch, there are a number of possibilities in the neighborhood. Chinya, 1-3-4 Asakusa, just west of Kaminarimon Gate on Kaminarimon Dori, has been serving sukiyaki and shabu-shabu since 1880. Northeast of Kaminarimon Gate is Waentei-Kikko, 2-2-13 Asakusa, offering obento lunch boxes and shamisen performances. For Western food, head to the other side of the Sumida River, where on the 22nd floor of the Asahi Beer Tower is La Ranarita Azumabashi, 1-23-1 Azumabashi, a moderately priced Italian restaurant with great views of Asakusa; and the utilitarian Sky Room with inexpensive beer, wine, and drinks.
Before reaching the end of Nakamise Dori, there are a couple interesting side streets worth exploring. Just 2 blocks north of Kaminarimon Gate are two
6. Covered shopping arcades
Stretching both to the right and left of Nakamise Dori, these pedestrian-only covered lanes are typical of what you'll see everywhere in Japan -- regular streets that became instant shopping centers by covering them with roofs and banning vehicular traffic. This is where the locals shop, with stores selling clothing, household goods, souvenirs, and more.
Farther along Nakamise Dori, to the left, is Demboin Dori (you'll pass some interesting shops selling antiques here). In just a minute's walk you'll see a small red gate on your right. This is:
7. Chingodo Shrine
Dedicated to Chingodo, the so-called raccoon dog and guardian against fires and burglars, it affords a view of part of a garden through a fence. This garden is:
8. Demboin Garden
This peaceful oasis in the midst of bustling Asakusa was designed in the 17th century by Enshu Kobori, a tea-ceremony master and famous landscape gardener who also designed a garden for the shogun's castle. Alas, it used to be open to the public, but no longer, so you'll have to content yourself with a glimpse of it here.
Return to Nakamise Dori and resume your walk north to the second gate, which opens onto a square filled with pigeons and a large:
9. Incense burner
This is where worshippers "wash" themselves to ward off or help cure illness. If, for example, you have a sore throat, be sure to rub some of the smoke over your throat for good measure.
The building dominating the square is:
10. Sensoji Temple
Sensoji is Tokyo's oldest temple. Founded in the 7th century and therefore already well established long before Tokugawa settled in Edo, Sensoji Temple is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and is therefore popularly called the Asakusa Kannon Temple. According to legend, the temple was founded after two fishermen pulled a golden statue of Kannon from the sea. The sacred statue is still housed in the temple, carefully preserved inside three boxes. Even though it's never on display, an estimated 20 million people flock to the temple annually to pay their respects.
Within the temple is a counter where you can buy your fortune by putting a 100-yen coin into a wooden box and shaking it until a long bamboo stick emerges from a small hole. The stick will have a Japanese number on it, which corresponds to one of the numbers on a set of drawers. Take the fortune, written in both English and Japanese, from the drawer that has your number. But don't expect the translation to clear things up; my fortune contained such cryptic messages as "Getting a beautiful lady at your home, you want to try all people know about this," and "Stop to start a trip." If you find that your fortune raises more questions than it answers or if you simply don't like what it has to say, you can conveniently negate it by tying it to one of the wires provided for this purpose just outside the main hall.
To the right (east) of the temple is the rather small:
11. Nitemmon Gate
Built in 1618, this is the only structure on temple grounds remaining from the Edo Period; all other buildings, including Sensoji Temple and the pagoda, were destroyed in a 1945 air raid.
On the northeast corner of the grounds is a small orange shrine, the:
12. Asakusa Jinja Shrine
This shrine was built in 1649 by Iemitsu Tokugawa, the third Tokugawa shogun, to commemorate the two fishermen who found the statue of Kannon, and their village chief. Its architectural style, called Gongen-zukuri, is the same as Toshogu Shrine's in Nikko. West of Sensoji Temple is a gardenlike area of lesser shrines, memorials, flowering bushes, and a stream of carp. (Tip: The most picturesque photos of Sensoji Temple can be taken from here.)
Farther west still is:
This is a small and corny amusement park that first opened in 1853 and still draws in the little ones.
Most of the area west of Sensoji Temple (to the left when facing the front of the temple) is a small but interesting part of Asakusa popular among Tokyo's older working class. This is where several of Asakusa's old-fashioned pleasure houses remain, including bars, restaurants, strip shows, traditional Japanese vaudeville, and so-called "love hotels," which rent rooms by the hour.
If you keep walking west, past the Asakusa View Hotel, within 10 minutes you'll reach:
14. Kappabashi-dougugai Dori
Generally referred to as Kappabashi Dori, Tokyo's wholesale district for restaurant items has shops selling pottery, chairs, tableware, cookware, lacquerware, rice cookers, noren, and everything else needed to run a restaurant. You can even buy those models of plastic food you've seen in restaurant displays. Ice cream, pizza, sushi, mugs foaming with beer -- they're all here, looking like the real thing. (Stores close about 5pm and are closed Sun.)
Winding Down -- The Asakusa View Hotel, on Kokusai Dori between Sensoji Temple and Kappabashi Dori, has several restaurants and bars, including the clubby Ice House, the hotel's main bar. Another good place to end a day of sightseeing is Ichimon, 3-12-6 Asakusa, near the intersection of Kokusai and Kototoi avenues. Decorated like a farmhouse, it specializes in sake. For inexpensive dining in a convivial, rustic setting, head to Sometaro, 2-2-2 Nishi-Asakusa, just off Kokusai Dori, where you cook your own okonomiyaki or fried noodles at your table.