Traditional festivals, a secret garden, temples & more
This is where I often take people on their first day in Tokyo. It’s everything you thought Japan would be!
Asakusa is a lively, traditional, truly Japanese neighborhood. There’s a huge Buddhist temple – home to magnificent festivals throughout the year – and shops selling goods and food still made the way they’ve been doing it for centuries.
First, let’s take advantage of Nakamise-dori, a great shopping street. We’ll start at the Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate) and walk down the street that leads straight to Sensō-ji Temple. Most of the businesses have been owned by the same families for generations.
As we walk down Nakamise-dori toward the temple we’ll see:
•On the right, right next to the red Kaminari-mon gate: a famous stationery store that has beautiful handmade and printed paper, and Japanese prints.
• Shops selling girls’ hair ornaments for special festivals like Shichi-Go-San.
• On the left, a shop selling lucky cat statues (manneki neko)
• Shops selling traditional fans, parasols, cotton kimonos, geta and zori (traditional footwear)
• On the left: a dog shop selling clothing and accessories for dogs
•Tai-yaki (traditional red-bean-filled pastries)
•Rice crackers, made fresh by the stores that sell them. You can watch the senbe maker flip them with tongs over a charcoal fire.
•Skewers of sweet pounded rice balls with salty-sweet sauce (mitarashi dango). The green ones without sauce aren’t green tea flavor, they’re yomogi (mugwort) . The powder they’re dusted with is kinako, sweet roasted soybean flour. There’s a shop about halfway down the street on the left that sells kibi-dango, which are smaller, made from buckwheat instead of rice, and covered with kinako. If you know the story of Momtaro (The Peach Boy), this is what he famously ate on his journey.
Let’s buy a bundle of incense for ¥100 at the window to the right. Light it in the burner near the window, then stick it upright in the giant urn and go up the steps and look into the temple itself. Make an offering and a wish if you like. At Buddhist temples, you don’t need to clap – just toss your offering coin, bow, fold your hands, make a wish, and bow again before you leave.
Back down the steps, let’s turn left. See the little park with all the statues in it? Let’s walk past it and take a little detour to visit the Amuse Museum, home of a collection of wonderful artifacts illustrating Japanese country life before Japan opened to the West.
I especially love the salmon skin boots (with fins!) and the patchwork underwear, but they also have a tiny theater that shows a terrific loop of shorts pointing out the hidden messages in woodblock prints. It’s a good place to rest our feet, unless you’d like to continue up to the sixth floor to Bar Six – a gem of a bar that has the best view of Senso-ji temple around. This museum also has a really excellent gift shop.
Now let’s head down the little street that’s parallel to Nakamise-dori. As we walk along, we’ll see:
•On the corner to the right: the festival store, selling everything you’d need to wear to carry a portable shrine in a festival, right down to the two-toed tabi socks and straw sandals.
•A little further along is Fujiya – a tenugui (traditional hand towel) shop with designs nice enough to frame. They’re all designed by Keiji Kawakami, who’s been designing them for over fifty years.
•Next, the Monchhichi monkey doll store. They sell special edition Monchhichis here, including one wearing an Asakusa festival outfit.
•On the left you’ll see a soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant with a big window in front. Sometimes one of the chefs is there, rolling out soba noodles.
When we get to the big street, let’s turn right, and walk along until we see:
•Near the corner: a zori, geta, and umbrella store with big front windows displaying the merchandise. They have gorgeous umbrellas, some with one color on the outside and a different color inside.
•Let’s keep going across the intersection and visit the taiko drum store. It sells all sizes of taiko drums, drumsticks, traditional carved masks, and traditional festival noisemakers – you can even buy an o-mikoshi (portable shrine) there if you’ve got a few million yen to spare.
Note: From this corner, it’s a five-minute walk to Kappabashi Street (the kitchenware district where they also sell those super-realistic plastic food models). To get there, continue down the little alleyway that runs alongside the taiko drum store. In about three blocks we’ll intersect with Kappabashi Street, which is easy to recognize because it has covered sidewalks.
Especially good times to go to Asakusa:
•New Year’s (1/1-3): Many people visit the temple wearing kimono. If we come before midnight on New Year’s Eve, we can watch them ring the temple bell 108 times to bring in the new year.
• Setsubun (2/3 or 2/4): Bean-throwing ceremony. Many celebrities come to throw the beans at Senso-ji.
• Hari Kuyo (2/8): Memorial service for used sewing needles.
MARCH: Cherry blossom season turns the walk along the Sumida River into a pink wonderland
• Flower Festival (4/8): Celebrating the birth of Buddha
• Bon Odori: Traditional dances take place at night to welcome back the spirits of ancestors.
•Shichi-Go-San (11/15): For the “7-5-3” ceremony, families with children at these special ages flock to the temple for pictures, all dressed in their finest kimono. Although the actual day is the 15th, you can see many families visiting the temple in all their finery during the two weeks leading up to the actual day.
•Battledore Festival (12/17-19): Battledores – fancy decorated stylized badminton-like paddles – are sold for baby girls who have not yet turned one by New Years.
Festivals are accompanied by many special outdoor performances, vendor booths, and exhibitions of traditional craft making. Asakusa’s Senso-ji attracts an especially lively variety of traditional jugglers, singers, and storytellers, as well as offering activities like archery booths and carnival-like games of skill. Traditional festival food booths are well-represented: yakitori, oden, yakisoba, and of course, beer and sake.
Ready to leave Asakusa? Maybe we should ride the water bus! It’s fun to ride down the Sumida River, under many bridges, stopping at the Hama-Rikyu Gardens, Hinode Pier (Hamamatsu-cho Station), and Odaiba. The water bus is a great way to see all the cherry trees in bloom along the river in late March to early April (although the ticket line is long).
Nearby destinations: Akihabara, Asakusa-bashi, Edo-Tokyo Museum, Inari-cho, Kappabashi, Ningyo-cho, Ueno
Jonelle Patrick writes mysteries set in Tokyo