Asakusa

GateNakamise
The Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate) – gateway to Senso-ji temple and the Nakamise-dori shopping street

DIRECTIONS & MAP

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.

The side gate changes color as you watch as you watch
At night Senso-ji temple is lit up like an amazing stage set. The side gate lighting changes color as you watch!
Even in the rain, this temple is spectacular
Even in the rain, this temple is spectacular

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.

Shichi-go-san store
This store sells all the accessories girls need to go with their kimonos on the Shichi-Go-San childrens’ coming-of-age day.
You can find lots of fun only-in-Japan stuff on Nakamise-dori too.
You can find lots of fun only-in-Japan stuff on Nakamise-dori too.
Taiyaki
Snacks like taiyaki (filled with sweet red bean jam) and sembe (rice crackers) are still made fresh each day in Asakusa.

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.

SensojiGateClose
When you get to the end of the shopping street, straight ahead is Senso-ji temple.
Incense urn
In front of the temple is a huge incense urn. Waft the smoke toward yourself for good luck and good health. Once I even saw someone capturing the smoke in a ziplock baggie to take home to an ailing relative.

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.

AmuseMuseumExhibit

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.

KidsMatsuri
On festival days, there’s even a portable shrine for the children to carry through the streets!

•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:

January:

•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.

February:

• 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.

Needles
Needles are stuck into a block of tofu to give their spirits a soft place to rest after a lifetime of diligent service.

MARCH: Cherry blossom season turns the walk along the Sumida River into a pink wonderland

HANAMISumidagawa

April:

• The hidden garden of Denpo-in is open to the public from the end of March to the second week in May. Read more about it on the Gardens page.

4Denpoin

• Flower Festival (4/8): Celebrating the birth of Buddha

August:

• Bon Odori: Traditional dances take place at night to welcome back the spirits of ancestors.

November:

Around the first weekend of November, the White Heron Dance is held in front of Senso-ji temple
Around the first weekend of November, the White Heron Dance is held in front of Senso-ji temple

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.

4Girls

Lucky Rake Festival (for this year’s dates, check the month of November at #tokyotrip): Rakes are sold in order to “rake in” money in the new year.

December:

•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.

MonkeyShow
Monkey trainers and other traditional Japanese entertainers often come to Asakusa festivals.
Yabusame
Several times a year, ceremonies with period costumes take place. This one is for the mounted archers, who shoot at targets from a galloping horse.
WeddingRickshaw
The Asakusa Shrine (next to Senso-ji Temple) is a prime wedding spot. Weddings take place most often on Saturdays and Sundays.

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).

SumidagawaRain
Tokyo’s newest tower – the Skytree – joins the Asahi beer building in the view along the Sumida River.

DIRECTIONS & MAP

Nearby destinations: Akihabara, Asakusa-bashi, Edo-Tokyo Museum, Inari-cho, Kappabashi, Ningyo-cho, Ueno

Jonelle Patrick writes mysteries set in Tokyo. And her fourth book, Painted Doll, hits Detective Kenji Nakamura much too close to home…

It's been nine years since she didn't make it home, but now Tokyo Detective Kenji Nakamura's life is about to unravel... Read more
When Tokyo Detective Kenji Nakamura’s phone rings with the news that his mother’s death ten years ago wasn’t an accident, his world begins to unravel. New evidence links her to…Read more

PAINTED DOLL book trailer (1:08)

 

 

 

2 Replies to “Asakusa”

  1. I am coming to Japan this June and wondering how much time I should allow this temple trip. I am a teacher and want to share the experience with my students.

    1. Hi Susan! I’m so envious you’ll be seeing Asakusa for the first time! When I take friends there, I usually allow a whole morning, because great picture-taking opportunities are EVERYWHERE, and the many small shops are a cultural experience in themselves. (They are full of traditional goods, often still made the way they’ve been made for centuries, so even if you don’t buy anything, it’s worth a look.) I think you’ll be sorry if you don’t allow time to really walk around the neighborhood, but if you’re pressed for time, you can probably whoosh through in less than an hour if you keep moving and stick to the temple grounds and the one shopping street leading up to it. I hope you’ll stay longer though, and even nip over to neighboring Kappabashi Street, to see the plastic food model stores & such! Have a great time!

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