Being right next to the large Sumida River, Asakusa is a town of water and many landmark buildings. It is centered around the Sensoji Temple with the Kaminarimon or ‘Thunder Gate’ and the Nakamise central shopping street. Asakusa is immersed in rich tradition. Take in the riverside views and stroll the traditional streets filled with stalls and authentic souvenir shops selling quintessentially Japanese goods.
Head to the striking red Azumabashi Bridge for views of the towering Tokyo Skytree and the Asahi Group Headquarter Building, that looks just like a glass full of beer, with the Philippe Starck-designed golden sculpture right next to it adorning the roof. If you want to take in the cityscape from the water as well, board the uniquely sculpted Hotaluna waterbus for a short trip up the river.
The Sensoji in Asakusa is the oldest and most famous temple in Tokyo with a history going back 1,400 years. This temple is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and it is incredibly popular with the millions of people visiting Tokyo every year. The Sensoji enclosures can also be visited at night, combining a magical and spiritual environment that makes you understand the greatness of Japanese spirituality.
The story goes that around the year 628, two brothers were fishing in the nearby Sumida River, and caught a very persistent statue of Kannon in their nets. They threw it back a few times, but the statue kept coming back to them so they decided to keep it and bring it to the village chief. The chief was a devout Buddhist and knew what the statue meant, and shared many stories about Buddhism with the brothers. The statue was enshrined in his house, and this was the beginning of a wider introduction of Buddhism in this area. According to legend the statue started to emit a very strong golden light, too bright for human eyes and was consequently buried under the ground in the area where the temple is now standing.
The district of Asakusa and Sensoji Temple are so deeply connected that their names are written using the same Chinese characters: 浅草, which means ‘shallow grass’. ‘Senso’ is the Chinese pronunciation, and ‘Asakusa’ is the Japanese pronunciation. When the Sensoji was first founded, the Asakusa area was not a busy town like today, but a wild grassland where very few people lived. Thanks to the Sensoji, however, Asakusa became a lively center of pilgrimage and trade. The temple is the true heart of the town.
In the Edo period (1603-1868) when the Tokugawa shogunate was in charge, the shogunate made the Sensoji into a guardian temple of the Tokugawa’s. Along with the prosperity of Edo (the old Tokyo), the visitors of Sensoji increased, and Asakusa became the cultural center for Edo. At the golden age of the Edo era, hundreds of small Shinto shrines were built in the temple grounds and Asakusa became a sacred place for worship to the common people.
In the Meiji era (1868-1912), the temple grounds became Asakusa Park. The Sixth District became famous as an entertainment district, making a great contribution to Japanese film and theatre history. With the opening of the horse-driven railway-carriage line in 1882 and Japan’s first skyscraper, Ryounkaku (also known as Asakusa Twelve-stories, 52m high) in 1890, Asakusa led the movement of civilization and enlightenment in Tokyo.
In the 1930s the area came alive again. But as foreign films were the latest big attraction it was cinemas that moved in and the area thrived. For each film, live translations and sound effects were provided by a “benshi”. One benshi would use a number of different voices to act out all the parts. Some would also add in the odd little impromptu joke or two, and many would even do things like burn incense during funeral scenes! Twenty years later however television came and the benshi were gone. Cinemas closed; pachinko parlors, game centers, and strip clubs moved in. As a result, in terms of entertainment, many say Asakusa has died. However, big business never took a hold either, meaning that it is worth taking a walk around the side streets these days.
Sensoji Temple dates back to 645, but with the original destroyed in the air raids of March 10, 1945, today’s building is a 1958 reconstruction.
Today Asakusa is festive and quaint. The crowds are drawn by Sensoji Temple, the Five Storied Pagoda, and the traditional Nakamise shopping arcade. But for visitors between the sixteen and eighteen hundreds, the attraction was somewhat different – Asakusa contained the notorious ‘Yoshiwara’, the city’s licensed pleasure quarter.
Just opposite the Kaminarimon gate is Asakusa Tourist Information Centre, easy to recognize by the classical-modern Japanese design of its building by famous architect Kengo Kuma. With plenty of free English maps to give away, it’s open from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm daily. It is also nice to take the elevator to the 8th floor and admire the view of the neighborhood.
Sensoji Temple has three gates. The Kaminarimon Gate is the main one and you’ll find it by following the signs from exit one of Asakusa Subway Station. The original gate was destroyed in the air raids of 1945, so this is a reconstruction that was built in 1960. You can find 4 statues in the gate. On the front-right, notice the Shinto God of the Wind, and on the front-left, the Shinto God of Thunder. The original statues were destroyed in a fire, but the heads were still intact. These were used on the reconstructions we can see today which were made in 1960. On the gate’s back-right you can see Buddhist god Tenryu, and on the back-left is Buddhist goddess Kinryu. These statues were donated to the Sensoji in 1978, which marked the 1350th anniversary of the finding of the Kannon statue. They are dragon gods in the form of humans and act as guardians of the temple.
Once through the Kaminari gate, you’ll be in the Nakamise Shopping Arcade. The street is lined with colorful, lively stalls selling traditional knick-knacks, traditional festival foods, and rice crackers. One wouldn’t think so, but the Nakamise has been around in a similar shape since the late 17th century when neighbors of the temple started catering to the ever-increasing number of visitors to the temple. It has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times, but the type of shops you find in Nakamise nowadays is very similar to what you would find hundreds of years ago. Even if the shops are closed, it is fun to look at the colorful shutters that are usually painted with a traditional Japanese
The Hozomon Gate marks the end of the Nakamise street. The two statues that you will see on either side were sculpted by a man from a small village in Yamagata and it is said that they are made to resemble famous sumo wrestlers from the 60s. They guard the temple gate against evil like Nio statues, the guardians of Buddha. The villagers of the sculptor are so happy for this opportunity of having one of their own showcase his work like this that they make 2 gigantic waraji slippers together and donate these to the Sensoji every few years. You can see these slippers hang on the back of the Hozomon gate, and it is said that it brings luck to travelers to touch them so go ahead and hold one of the smaller slippers hanging from the large ones. The upper story of the gate is used as a storage for some of the temple’s most treasured valuables such as sutras and scriptures.
As you get nearer the temple, look out for the large incense burners. Incense is wafted over the body as an act of purification. Also, notice the large wooden fortune-telling stand. To use it, first select a stick from one of the metal cylinders. Then you have to find the number on the wooden drawers that corresponds with the number on the stick and take out a slip of paper. If the paper says you have bad luck, by then tying it to the special rack provided, it will apparently blow away.
The Five Storied Pagoda on the left was built in 1973 and amongst other functions, it stands in honor of comedians! It’s 53.32 meters high, reinforced with concrete and steel, and like all pagodas, running down the center is a giant pillar of Japanese Cypress tree wood. Around this, the five stories are loosely packed, resulting in a highly flexible structure able to withstand earth tremors. Regular people can’t enter this pagoda, and even people whose families have memorial tablets stored in here can only enter the pagoda on a few set days per year. The pagoda’s architecture originates in India and China and like many pagoda’s it is built to enshrine Buddha’s relics, memorial tablets and act as a focus of devotion. The 5 stories of the pagoda are a symbol of the Buddhist 5 elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space.
To the left of the temple, you’ll see Hanayashiki Amusement Park, where it is said a real ghost resides in its walk-through ghost house. This park and the streets that surround the area were once the site of the Yoshiwara, the licensed pleasure quarter of the city of Edo. Many a kabuki play and other works of art were inspired by life in the Yoshiwara. But living conditions were appalling, and arson was often the women’s only revenge. Finally, in 1923, the whole area was completely destroyed by fire, ironically though, a non-deliberate fire caused by the earthquake.
Nowadays it is fun walking around in the little streets surrounding Asakusa, as they are full of restaurants serving local delicacies, beautifully decorated store shutters, small shops, and also stores where the locals do their daily shopping. You also should have a look in nearby Kappabashi, especially if you are a hobby cook as this district is specialized in everything you could possibly need for your restaurant or kitchen.
A Ghost Story
If you are in Asakusa in the evening and if you like paranormally active spots, the area is supposedly full of them. One of the most infamous ghosts that lives here is in the Ubagaike near the eastern entrance of the temple. According to legend, there was an old woman living with her daughter at the only inn in the area who had a habit of killing every man who stayed there with a heavy stone and rob him afterward, and finally throw his body in this pond. The daughter wanted to stop the killing and thus secretly slept in the room where the traveler would normally sleep. The old woman unknowingly killed her own daughter that night, and upon that discovery took her body to the pond and finally jumped in herself. The pond is supposedly still haunted, so if you have the guts you can visit this pond at night and feel the chilly atmosphere for yourself.
Today Asakusa is one of the few places in Tokyo where the traditional style of Japan is preserved. Most of the streets, stations, and shops have a historical appearance, there are music players in the streets playing traditional Japanese music and there are many kimono stores and typical objects of Japanese culture. There are also many kimono rental shops, available for all those who want to have the experience of wearing traditional Japanese clothing. In Asakusa, you can see many people, both Japanese and tourists, wearing kimono.
Asakusa is undoubtedly one of the most charming places in all of Tokyo, as it takes you to the essence of Edo (former name of the city) and combines modern aspects such as its proximity to the highest tower in the world, the Tokyo Skytree.