Located in northeast Tokyo, sandwiched between Ueno Park and Sumida River, Asakusa (浅草) was originally an entertainment district. In the Edo period, Asakusa saw theatres and geisha houses built when the area was flooded with disposable income from nearby Kuramae. In the early 20th century, Tokyoites began to frequent Denkikan, the first movie theatre built in Japan, in Asakusa’s Rokku theatre district. Today, Sensō-ji temple looms over a neighbourhood filled with low-rise buildings, small guest houses, hostels, independent shops and restaurants.
Once a destination for revellers, Asakusa now tends to attract the pious and the shoppers. It’s the home of Sensō-ji (浅草寺), a massive Buddhist temple dedicated to the Bodhisattva Kannon. Sensō-ji was founded in 628 when two brothers pulled the statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon from the Sumida River. Seventeen years later the original temple was built (and later rebuilt following the Second World War bombings). A shrine dedicated to Nishinomiya Inari is also located on the premises, along with Kaminarimon, or “Thunder Gate,” the structure that announces the entranceto the massive complex. After walking underneath the imposing gate and under the gigantic paper lantern, visitors meander past the shops on Nakamise-dori. These shops are a great place to pick up traditional crafts like kokeshi (wooden dolls), kamifusen (rice paper balloons), ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), kintaro ame, konpeito and temari (all types of hard candy). Beyond the shops of Nakamise-dori is Hozōmon, which houses many of Sensō-ji’s treasures, including the Lotus Sutra, a designated Japanese National Treasure. Throughout the complex are guardian statues depicting Shinto and Buddhist gods like Fūjin, Raijin, Tenryū and Kinryū. The temple complex is near and dear to the hearts of Tokyoites, as it is often the first place they visit in the new year.
Sensō-ji is central to numerous festivals held in Asakusa—following the ringing of the joya-no- kane (New Year’s Eve bell) 108 times, Hatsumōde (初詣) is celebrated in early January. During this festival, the temple sees millions of revellers line up to make New Year’s wishes, watch parades and consume delicious street foods like okonomi-yaki, ningyo-yaki, karaage, chocolate-covered bananas and amazake, a sweet drink made from fermented rice and served warm.
Setsubun (節分) is celebrated annually at Sensō-ji on February 3 to herald the start of spring. The festival’s custom has priests and special guests (often sumo wrestlers and other celebrities) throwing roasted soybeans wrapped in gold or silver foil, candies and small envelopes filled with money at the revellers. This popular festival regularly sees over a hundred thousand people attend every year.
Sanja Matsuri (Three Shrine Festival, 三社祭) is held every year in late May, and is the wildest and largest of the three great Shinto festivals in Tokyo. The festival began in the 7th century and has continued annually in various forms ever since. Sanja Matsuri centres around a large parade with three mikoshi (portable shrines), yosakoi-style dancing and music. The festival takes place over three days, attracting up to two million visitors annually.
You can watch fireworks with the locals over the Sumida River during the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival at the end of July. This popular festival has been immortalized in many romantic films and anime.
At the end of August, sway your hips to the beat of the annual Samba Carnival. Brazil is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan, and as a result, the two countries have always had strong ties. Asakusa began hosting the annual Samba Carnival in 1981 when the district mayor invited one of the dance teams from Rio to perform on the streets of Asakusa. The rest, as they say, is history. The carnival is regularly named the top summer festival in Tokyo, and it consists of a parade where dance teams compete with ornate costumes, live music and dance moves that rival their Rio cousins.
The Tokyo Jidai Matsuri celebrates the history of Tokyo and is held on November 3 every year. The parade begins and ends at Sensō-ji, and is comprised of more than 1,600 participants in costumes representing Edo and Tokyo’s history from the 7th century up until the modern era.
Asakusa is more than temples and festivals, however. It is also the location of the oldest (and one of the few remaining) geisha districts in Tokyo. While it is difficult to procure an invitation to one of the hidden teahouses where geisha perform their traditional arts, it is possible to see them nip outside for a bit of air in the streets near Sensō-ji. True to its history as Tokyo’s original entertain- ment district, Asakusa is also home to Japan’s oldest amusement park, Hanayashiki. The park was opened in 1853, the same year Commodore Perry arrived in Japan, and while the rides have been updated, the park itself maintains its historical atmosphere.
All photos ©Toyooka City Photo Library unless otherwise noted
Tokyoites and tourists alike flock to Kappabashi, or “Kitchen Town,” a historic shopping district where kitchen utensils of all sorts are sold: Japanese steel knives, wooden pot lids and even plastic models of food! Like Nakamise-dori, Kappabashi is a great place to pick up unique souvenirs and memories from your visit to Tokyo.
Asakusa’s eats and treats
Unique flavours and one-of-a-kind omiyage (souvenirs) abound in the Nakamise-dori and Kappabashi historic shopping districts, making Asakusa a must-see for local foodies and tourists.
Omiyage: Plastic food models, or shokuhin sampuru, are displayed prominently in the windows of virtually every restaurant in Japan. These unique souvenirs are available as keychains, magnets and models at the shops in Kappabashi. Picture©ACworks Co.Ltd.
Food: Ningyo-yaki are small, tasty cakes filled with anko (sweet red bean paste, 餡子). The ones sold in Nakamise-dori are shaped like the lantern hanging in Kaminarimon gate.