Today we are looking at one of Tokyo’s more historic areas, Asakusa. Home to Tokyo’s most famous and visited Buddhist temple, Sensoji, with it's rich history and great shopping, Asakusa attracted tourists for centuriesm. Come with Japlanning, as we take a look at the history, sights and shopping of Asakusa.
Asakusa, located north of central Tokyo, on the banks of the Sumida River, began as a quiet fishing village, then later thrived as people arrived in numbers to worship at Sensoji. For most of the early twentieth century, Asakusa was the entertainment district of Tokyo, and it became home to the first cinema in 1903, as well as many theatres. During World War II, the area was quite damaged, due to this, in the later years of the century, the area was surpassed for being the entertainment district by Shibuya and Shinjuku, amongst other areas in Tokyo. More recently, however, this has been making a comeback, with a downtown entertainment district that is rivalling Ginza, Shinjuku and others.
Beyond the nightlife and entertainment, Asakusa has emerged for tourism as a must-visit area, thanks to its great shopping and its temples and shrines. Most notably Sensoji, which is Tokyo’s most famous temple, with a lively street market leading up to its iconic temple buildings. The other must-do-shopping is for all your kitchen needs, with Asakusa being home to the wholesale shopping district for kitchens across Tokyo.
Let’s take a look at the must see and shop areas of this classic old-feeling town of Tokyo, Asakusa.
We better start off with the biggest visitor magnet in Asakusa, Sensoji. This Buddhist temple, legend tells us that fishermen brothers discovered a statue in the Sumida river of the goddess of mercy, Kan’non, in 628AD and were so inspired that they wanted to enshrine it. When the head of Asakusa heard of the news, he saw the importance of this Buddhist figure and took his vows as a Buddhist priest and remade his home into a temple, that we know as Sensoji today, and he spent the rest of his life in devotion to Kan’non.
The first temple was built on the site in 645AD, making Sensoji the oldest temple in Tokyo. It was designated as a tutelary temple of the Tokugawa clan in the early years of the Shogunate reign. During World War II, the temple was bombed, and the majority of it was destroyed. After the war, it was rebuilt as the temple we see today, as a symbol of rebirth and for peace to the Japanese people. Another symbol of the rebirth from the war is a tree in the temple grounds' courtyard, where a tree that was hit by one of the bombs has re-grown in the husk of the old tree, is now regarded as a symbol of the temple.
The Temple’s entrance is the Kaminarimon Gate, which dominates the entrance and houses the iconic giant red paper lantern that hangs from it in the middle. The lantern is painted with deep red and black tones to suggest thunderclouds and lightning. After the gate you'll find the nakamise dori, which is lined with stalls and shops, selling local crafts and souvenirs, and runs up to the main temple grounds, ending at the Hozomon gate which is the entrance to the inner temple complex. In the main grounds are the temple’s main hall, and its famous five story pagoda. Here is where you can get your Japanese fortune, take in the main hall's stunning architecture and artwork, as well as witness locals doing their Buddhist rituals at the temple.
Surrounding Sensoji are several smaller shrines and temples that are usually all visited while at the complex.
Sensoji is open year-round, with the main hall open from 6:00am to 5:00pm, and the rest of the grounds open to the public all hours. Admission is free, and the best way to get to the Temple is to take the Ginza Subway line and disembark at Asakusa station, and follow the signs for the Sensoji Exit.
Official site - http://www.senso-ji.jp/about/index_e.html
While in Asakusa, don’t think you can just jump of the train, check out Sensoji, and jump on to another part of Tokyo. Asakusa is a haven for the vacationing shopper, with a different offering than the more famous Ginza shopping district.
Starting at the entrance area of Sensoji Temple, is the Nakamise Shopping streets, which include the main walk-up to the temples main grounds, with a shop and stall lined street of over 250 meters, full of stores selling handmade crafts and traditional souvenirs, as well as some fantastic clothing like traditional kimonos, ornamental hairpins, and yukatas. Also this is the place to grab some sensu folding fans with some spectacular Japanese artwork on them. Don't fret about getting hungry either, as there is mouth watering Japanese delicacies being handmade freshly for you to fill up on. The Japanese ice-cream stall is heavenly (although they will make you eat it in front of the stall, no walking away, a little quirky!) Be sure to check out the cross streets too, these are all a part of the Nakamise Shopping experience, with laneways covered with hundreds more stalls with unique items for sale.
The other must shop experience in Asakusa is the Kappabashi Shopping street. This long stretch of road is more than 800 metres long, and has more than 170 shops all catering to the kitchen and its tools; it’s considered the biggest kitchen market in Japan. The street is a wholesale market, dealing in cooking utensils and catering items, geared towards professionals working in the restaurant industry in Japan, however tourists are more than welcome to shop. Here is where you will find western and Japanese cutlery, tableware, appliances and just about anything for the kitchen. This is where all restaurants in Japan get those awesome plastic models of meals from, and maybe you want to pick up a replica of your favorite sushi for back home?
Sushi models aside, the best purchase you can make here is getting a Japanese knife for your kitchen. Just one of these immaculate cutting knives will replace a whole knife block in most kitchens. They are crafted by masters and families who have been doing it for decades, and will happily help you select the perfect knife for you, and hand sharpen it and even engrave your name in Japanese. The weight ratios in the steel of these knives are perfect, and you will never find a knife as good back home, or at such a great price. Buy one! Your food and kitchen will thank you (you’ll also find some great knife stores around the Nakamise Shopping area, and at the Tsukuji fish market as well.)
Nakamise Shopping Streets are open year-round, with most stalls and shops opening from 10:00am until 8:00pm. The best way to get to Nakamise is to take the Ginza Subway line, and disembark at Asakusa station. Follow the signs for the Sensoji Exit.
Kappabashi Shopping Street is open year round, however many shops are closed on Sundays and public holidays. The best way to get to Kappabashi is to take the Ginza Subway line, and disembark at Tawaramachi Station. Kappabashi is only a short walk away.
While in Asakusa don’t limit yourself to just Sensoji, check out a few other sights in the area, some of our favorites are:
This beautiful riverside park stretches both sides of the same named river, where it passes through Asakusa, for a few hundred meters. Both banks are have wonderful paths to take a stroll along the river as well as beautiful gardens and, during Sakura (Cherry Blossom) season the banks shine with Sakura trees lining the river in the park. Also if you happen to be in Japan in the last week of July, on the Saturday the park is the site of the Sumida River Fireworks show, lighting up the night sky in Asakusa.
Also from the same area you can take a Sumida River cruise, going down Tokyo’s legendary river all the way to Odaiba.
Tokyo Water Bus operate the sightseeing vessels and range from 460 to 720 yen. The best way to get to the park is make your way to the Ginza Subway line and disembark at Asakusa station. From Asakusa station, Sumida Park is a five minute walk away.
Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center
The Information centre sits opposite the entrance to Sensoji and is a beautifully designed building which gives a great contrast to the more traditional buildings in the area. This eight story building is a must stop for all tourists, offering tourist information for Tokyo in many languages as well as free wifi, which is always a lifesaver to get that extra status update or instagram up! Also inside is a great little café and observation deck overlooking Sensoji and giving a great view of the Tokyo Sky Tree
The Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center is open daily from 9am to 8pm. The best way to get to the center is make your way to the Ginza Subway line and disembark at Asakusa station. From Asakusa station, follow the signs for the Sensoji Exit.
Tokyo Sky Tree
While technically not in Asakusa, however, just a 20 minute walk from Asakusa, over the Sumida river, or a 5 minute train, it’s too close not to go up the tallest tower in the world, and second tallest building in the world. Grab a ticket and go up 450 meters and see Tokyo from higher than most birds do. For more information on Tokyo Sky tree and detailed directions to get there check out our Japlanning 101 – Tokyo Sky Tree article here.
Asakusa is old Tokyo in many ways, yet also the future, with Tokyo Sky Tree just minutes away. It’s a must stop on Japlanning's trips to Tokyo every time. For the amazing Sensoji Temple, a photographers dream, and also the amazing shopping, it seems all our kitchen items now have been brought back from Kappabashi Street, and it’s better for it! So on your next trip be sure to plan a visit to Asakusa and get spiritual, shopped out, and see all of Tokyo from the clouds all within 20 minutes walk of each other!