This is where I often take people on their first day in Tokyo. It’s everything you think Japan should be – traditional festivals, a secret garden, temples & more. Asakusa is a lively, traditional, truly Japanese neighborhood. There’s a huge Buddhist temple, and shops that sell goods and food still made the way they’ve been doing it for centuries.
First, let’s take advantage of Nakamise-dori, the shopping street leading to Senso-ji temple.
Start at the Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate) and ogle the fun stuff in the stores as we pass.
Let’s buy a bundle of incense for ¥100 at the window to the right. We’ll 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? From here, it’s a short walk to two more fun spots – the Lucky Cat Matchmaking Shrine…
and the shop where they sell the world’s most beautiful lollipops.
Asakusa is home to some of Tokyo’s most spectacular traditional festivals. Find out if one is happening while you’re in town here.
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.
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.
Cherry blossom season turns the walk along the Sumida River into a pink wonderland
• The hidden garden of Denpo-in is open to the public from the end of March to the second week in May.
• Flower Festival (4/8): Celebrating the birth of Buddha
The famous Sanja Matsuri is one of the biggest, most raucous festivals in all of Japan.
• 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.
• Lucky Rake Festival: Rakes are sold in order to “rake in” money in the new year.
• 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.
To check the current dates and details of festivals happening while you’re in Tokyo, zip over to Tokyo Cheapo.
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 that time of year).
The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon
“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist
Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly e-magazine Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had