TOKYO (TR) – Tokyo can be crudely described as a metropolis of soaring and undulating concrete collectively illuminated by a glow of garish neon. Yet bordering the Sumida River in the east is the Asakusa district, which adheres to many of those characteristics but also retains certain cultural elements of life back in the Edo Period (1615 – 1868).
Tourists and locals will often flock to the area’s temples and shrines, which create a lively atmosphere around the New Year’s holidays, a prelude to the various festivals and carnivals held throughout the year.
It was once Japan’s version of Vaudeville, with one district having offered many performance theaters, a legacy that still lingers today.
Ladies in kimono shuffling through Asakusa’s narrow alleys is not an unusual site as it is one of Tokyo’s six remaining hanamachi, literally “flower town,” a reference to the locales in which customers can be entertained by a geisha.
For taking memories with you, Asakusa’s shopping streets offer numerous opportunities for buying traditional and unique souvenirs. Then to unwind, there is no shortage of intimate bars and restaurants.
The most interesting recent development has been the steady rise of the soon-to-be-completed, 634-meter Tokyo Sky Tree transmission tower across the Sumida. So don’t wait to see if Asakusa will be reshaped into yet another business district; exit the Tokyo Metro Asakusa subway station and take a tour today.
The focal point of Asakusa is the gravel and stone compound surrounding Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. Legend says that in the year 628 a statue of Kannon, or the Goddess of Mercy, was retrieved from the river by two fishermen. Sensing the importance of the find, the village chief subsequently took possession of the piece and rebuilt his house into a temple, termed Kannon-do, for the worship of the Goddess.
Fronting the temple is a large bronze incense burner that continually emits white puffs of smoke. Divine power is believed to be derived from exposure to incense. It is therefore suggested that guests cleanse themselves next to the smoldering pot to ensure good health.
Visual spectacles at Senso-ji include the imposing Hozo-mon Gate, with its large paper lantern hanging in the center, and the beautiful five-tiered pagoda of Senso-ji off to the side.
For the three men involved in Senso-ji’s establishment, they have been enshrined in the nearby Asakusa Shrine. On the third weekend of May, the Sanja Matsuri festival pays tribute to the trio as portable shrines, or omikoshi, are aggressively paraded through the streets and the hundreds of thousands of assembled spectators.
A visit to the compound in the evening is highly recommended. The crowds are not as intrusive and the major structures are brightly illuminated.
The Nakamise shopping arcade runs up to Senso-ji from Kaminari-mon Gate. Traditional dolls, t-shirts emblazoned with Chinese characters, light happi coats, decorated fans and the ubiquitous maneki neko statues (beckoning cats said to attract good luck), are available from the tiny shops occupying both sides of the corridor.
Venturing laterally from Nakamise creates shopping chances of a completely different sort. Enthusiasts of old photographs and postcards featuring luminaries in such fields as entertainment and pro wrestling can stop in at Marubell and flip through its extensive collection. At Trunks-ya, shoppers are able to peruse racks of boxers adorned with maneki neko cats, dragons or flowers in just about any color imaginable.
To get a proper feel for the area, it is advisable to take a stroll through its back alleys, where there are many vendors peddling ningyo-yaki, or small sweet bean cakes. These, along with senbei rice crackers, fresh off the grill at Iriyama Senbei, for example, make a perfect snack.
Many rickshaw drivers can be found offering short excursions from the front of the always bustling Kaminari-mon. The 30-minute tours on two wheels weave down to the river and through most of the area’s major attractions.
To the west is Kappabashi. Often described as “kitchen town,” it is an avenue of over 100 shops offering just about every piece of equipment needed to operate a restaurant or bar.
On weekday mornings, many shop proprietors can be seen scouring through the likes of blenders, cash registers, bar stools, bundles of chopsticks and noodle strainers. For the tourist, most intriguing are the plastic models of such menu items as pasta, ramen and sushi that nearly always can be found in a glass cabinet at a restaurant’s entrance.
A specialist in ceramic goods is Dengama. Rice bowls and teapots literally spill out of its front doors and onto the sidewalk. Interested in spicing up your kitchen with flower-patterned teacups? That is not a problem, nor is picking up ceramic chopstick holders.
On the way back, take a peek inside Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten. Founded in 1861, the outlet specializes in some of the finest taiko drums and other traditional Japanese instruments. In 1988, it established the Taikokan drum museum on the fourth floor. Here, visitors are able to pound away on a selection of percussion instruments on display and originating from all around the world.
Kappabashi Shopkeepers Association
1-4-3 Nishi Asakusa
Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten
Around a century ago, the area known as “Rokku,” to the west of Senso-ji, became a gathering point for a variety of entertainment forms. It offered a vivacious mix of comedy and burlesque shows both on the street and inside garish venues. The scene provided the start for such legendary actors as Kiyoshi Atsumi, most widely known as the itinerant peddler in the 48-episode “It’s Tough Being a Man” film series.
The Asakusa Toyokan theater, where film director and comedian Takeshi Kitano worked when it was named the France-za, keeps up with the area’s tradition by staging comedy and variety performances. Just up the road is the Asakusa Shin Gekijo retro film theater, which mainly screens gangster and action films made by venerable studios Nikkatsu and Toei in the ’60s and ’70s.
Asakusa Hanayashiki is a blast-from-the-past amusement park. In 1853, it opened as a park of flowers. Today, it offers numerous attractions for kids and adults, including a creaky wooden rollercoaster, fortunetelling, a shiny merry-go-round, a shooting gallery, and the Bee Tower rotating ride, whose
elevated perch provides a panoramic view.
For a bit of relaxation, head to the Asakusa Kannon Onsen, an aging bath house situated near Senso-ji and the pagoda. Modern conveniences are few but as with the Asakusa spirit the faded furnishings and colorful
tile work can transport guests back decades while soaking in the tub.
Asakusa Shin Gekijo
Asakusa Kannon Onsen
The Amuse Museum supplies a hands-on experience for various aspects of traditional Japanese culture over its six floors. The many textiles and crafts on display can be touched by visitors. Tea ceremonies, folk dancing and music performances are held in the multi-purpose space. Lessons on the shamisen (a three-stringed guitar) are also available. Not to be missed are the sixth-floor galleries housing many ukiyo-e prints — that is, woodblock paintings of the “floating world” of geishas and entertainers over the last three centuries. Bar Six, located on the same floor, provides a pleasant spot to view the Senso-ji complex while sipping a cocktail.
Before continuing down the road too far, fans of mediocre architecture might enjoy peering across the river at the headquarters of Asahi Breweries, a 22-story building fabricated in the shape of a frothy beer stein. French architect Philippe Starck designed the adjacent structure, the Asahi Super Dry Hall, which is topped with one of the city’s more dubious landmarks, the infamous golden flame. A beer hall is inside the Starck structure for sampling of the company’s products.
Art space Gallery éf was initially a warehouse constructed in 1868. Today, it still holds remnants of Edo architecture — exemplified by its series of wooden roof trusses — this in spite of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the bombings of World War II. It became a gallery with a café in 1997. Collaborations with international artists are exhibited and live performances and concerts are held.
Asahi Super Dry Hall
Tel: +81-3-3841- 0442
Dining near the bridge
Located between Nakamise and the Azuma-bashi Bridge, is Kamiya Bar, a true Tokyo institution. The three-floor establishment was founded in 1880, when it became Japan’s first pub to serve Western liquor. Today, the generally middle-age clientele sits at rows of tables while dining on fried fish and noodle dishes amid a wood-panel décor, all to create a ’70s-kitsch-meets-cafeteria atmosphere. Beer and cocktails are available, but be sure to sample the Denki Bran, a blended brandy concoction served in a V-shaped glass that is strong enough to test the resistance of your teeth fillings. A tuxedoed gentleman sells the potent beverage at a stand outside in bottles suitable for souvenirs.
To try something a bit more Japanese, wander back toward Senso-ji and settle down at Daikokuya, which specializes in battered and fried prawns served with soy sauce and placed over a bed of rice, collectively known as a type of tempura called ebi tendon.
Sake is always a favorite, and as a wonderful capper to an evening there is the nearby Sake no Daimasu bar. Guests can sample various selections from prefectures up and down Japan at the bar’s stylish tables or counters. Sashimi, available by the season, and other small snacks are also served.
If a geisha has not yet materialized, cross the Azuma-bashi and head in the direction of the towering Tokyo Sky Tree for Mukojima, Tokyo’s largest geisha quarter.
Sake no Daimasu
Tokyo Sky Tree
Note: This report originally appeared in CNN Traveller magazine in the July/August 2010 issue.