Want to take a glimpse at the Tokyo of yesteryear? If so, then Asakusa is the place to do it. Once a flourishing part of old Edo’s lively downtown districts with its numerous theatres and show tents, the area still seems to teems with the remnant energy handed down from the residents of long ago.
Asakusa was originally a small temple town at which the “Kannon of Asakusa,” or the Kannon Bodhisattva image, found in the nearby Sumidagawa River, was enshrined but over time expanded westwards along the riverbank. During the Edo era it developed into a major entertainment district as several theaters, such as the Three Theaters of Edo, moved into the vicinity. Soon after, the area’s streets were filled with small restaurants and teashops with the aim of catering to theatergoers.
The center of Asakusa was called “Rokku,” or “Sixth District,” in 1873 after the land rezoning that took place during the early Meiji era (1868-1912). Asakusa Rokku, with its show houses and theaters lining the streets thrived as a town of entertainers and entertainment and was far more active than today’s Shinjuku or Shibuya could ever hope to be, yet while it may now have lost some of its past glory as the capital’s entertainment heartland, its movie theaters and vaudeville houses are still alive and thriving today.
Furthermore, on a culinary vein, the Asakusa of the 21st century is an ideal place to taste the quintessential dishes of Edo era Japan with dishes such as tempura, soba, sukiyaki, eel and loach, to name but a few, coming quickly to mind. Traditional Japanese sweets such as thick sweet red bean soup, sweet potato cakes, dumplings, cherry rice cakes, popped rice balls, dried beans and rice crackers are also fun to eat.
Sensoji Temple – The Legendary Temple of Edo
A few minutes walk from the Asakusa subway stations stands Kaminari-mon, the grand, main gate of Sensoji Temple. The huge lantern hanging from the gate is quite imposing and is a popular meeting point for tourists and locals alike. Passing under Kaminari-mon will find visitors entering the mouth of the Nakamise shopping arcade. Stretching around 250 meters straight ahead with branches off to the left and right, and lined with old-fashioned, crimson-colored merchant’s shops it is an area forever abuzz with those in search of souvenirs.
With Nakamise behind you, a step through another large gate will lead to the courtyard of the temple with its main hall ahead and five storied pagoda to the left. Since the time the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, designated Sensoji Temple the then government’s official site for offering prayer, it has retained its image as the center of Edo’s downtown culture. It is well known as being Tokyo’s oldest temple and is the main symbol of Asakusa. Some may even say, Tokyo. Standing to the right and slightly to the rear of the main hall is Asakusa Shrine which is said to have been founded in the latter Heian or possibly the early Kamakura period.
To attempt to describe Asakusa and its offerings cannot however, be completed without mention of its famous festivals. The Sanja Festival is the Asakusa Shrine’s (as opposed to the temple’s) annual festival and is held every May. Labeled one of the three major Edo era festivals, the dynamic carrying of the 3 main portable shrines is so high-spirited and awe-inspiring that it invigorates all who come to see it. In summer a ground cherry market is held on the 9th and 10th of July with in excess of 400 ground cherry stalls filling the courtyard of the temple. Come winter, the famous Hagoita (battledore) market with its origins dating back to the days when Edo folk bought items to see in the New Year, is held annually. Running from the 17th to the 19th of December, the battledores that were once mainly adorned with the faces of famous Kabuki actors have now been joined by many other popular Japanese including baseball stars and even a Prime Minister.
From Sensoji Temple to Kappa-bashi
Near Sensoji is the amusement park, “Asakusa Hana-yashiki.” It was opened at the end of the Edo period and thus has a history of over 150 years. Roller coasters zooming past rooftops and other more down-to-earth attractions provide many with a rather nostalgic feeling in this ultra-modern metropolis.
Walking away from Asakusa with its incense-filled Sensoji Temple and passing through Rokku to get to the other side of Kokusai Dori leads tourists into the Tawara-machi and Inari-cho area. Temples abound and between the two districts, from Kikuyabashi crossing, those in search, come across the well known Kappabashi restaurant wholesale market. About 170 wholesalers line the street today although the market began with just a handful of kitchen utensils stores that started in business during the early Taisho era (1912-1926). With the passage of time, these shops came to cater to professional chefs as well as households. For fun there are also a few retail shops and some stores even sell unique food-shaped accessories similar to the plastic food you see displayed in restaurants. You might want to drop in and pick some up.
The Tori no Ichi Market – a fair that brings luck to the household
Tori no Ichi is a fair held on the “days of the bird” in the month of November (this year there are three days of the bird during the calendar’s eleventh month: the second, the fourteenth and the twenty-sixth). The fair at the Otori Shrine in Asakusa is particularly popular due to its grand scale. People gather from far and wide to buy the lucky kumade (bamboo rakes) which are believed to “rake in” good luck. While it is a little far from Asakusa, if you happen to visit the area on a “bird day,” it is well worth a visit.
Running northwards along both banks of the Sumidagawa River from Asakusa’s red Azuma-bashi Bridge is Sumida Park. Well renowned for its cherry blossoms since the Edo period it is at its best when the 700 cherry trees are full bloom during springtime.
Crossing the Kototoi-bashi Bridge that spans the Sumidagawa River will lead to Mukojima. The Mukojima Hyakka-en Garden was founded during the Edo period and has entertained visiting citizens with its collection of wild flowers and plants for many years. Plum blossoms in early spring and bush clovers in the fall are particularly famous in this corner of Tokyo.
Visiting the nearby Chomeiji Temple in Mukojima, famous for its water, “Chomei Water,” is also recommended as it is known also for its stone slabs engraved with the haiku (Japanese 17 syllable poems) of famous Edo-era haiku poet Matsuo Basho who lived to the south of the temple as well as writer Juppensha Ikku. This area is also home to traditional sweets such as Chomeiji cherry rice cakes which carry 300 years of history, and the Kototoi dumplings – first produced in late Edo period.
Asakusa and Mukojima are among the now very few districts in Tokyo that still preserve the old culture of Edo. It’s nice to just walk around the area and for those feeling a little tired, perhaps a rickshaw ride through Asakusa would also be an interesting experience.