Since I returned from my trip to Japan, several people have asked me what the best thing about Tokyo was…
Now as anyone who has been to Japan’s massive megalopolis might know, it’s not renowned for stacks of amazing “sights” dotted all over the city, so to speak, with the charm of the place being in discovering the different character of each district.
There’s one area however that does manage to bring the perfect mix, and thankfully it just happened to be the area I was staying in!
Working class Asakusa might not be the first image that pops into your head when you think of Tokyo. To look at it from a tourist perspective, it lacks the dazzling neon lights of Akihabara or Shinjuku, the alternative scene of Harajuku and the museums and parks of Ueno.
But it is the heart of “old Tokyo”, and it’s hard to find a better combination of the old and new than what you’ll find slap bang in front of you once you emerge from the underground into Asakusa’s bustling streets.
So why am I calling it my favourite part of Tokyo and what’s there to see and do? Well, I can heartily recommend these…
The huge “thunder gate” is likely to be the first real sight as you emerge from either of the Tokyo Metro exits. The huge hanging lantern and statues either side give you your first taste of historic Japan in modern-day Tokyo – but sneakily this incarnation has only existed since 1950!
Perenially crowded during the day time, you’ll have to squeeze along the packed pavement full of amateur snappers in front of the gate if you’re just passing by. You can always use this to your advantage though, as if you’ve ever lost your bearings in Asakusa you can simply follow the crowds that are guaranteed to be heading towards Kaminarimon.
During the day there can be scaffolding in front of the lantern due to repair works. Try and catch it after sunset for a pole free and less crowded view.
Heading through (or around, your choice!) Kaminarimon brings you onto Nakamise-Dori, one of Tokyo’s prime strips for souvenir shopping. It’s an ideal place for picking up some random trinkets or ornaments – perfect when you have no idea what to get your friends and family back home. Not that I was that unimaginative of course… You can also find items such as kimonos, fans, swords, lanterns and jewellery boxes along the long length of the street.
The arcade is also a good place for trying a range of Japanese snacks, with items such as dumplings, rice crackers and various dried goods available. You may well need some munch as you slowly meander your way up through the packed crowds, so keep an eye out and see what takes your fancy.
But pass on the green dumpling with red bean paste…
Okay, so technically Kaminarimon is part of the Sensoji temple complex too. But hey, it’s all the way down the other end!
Anyhow, the actual temple – Kannondō – is Tokyo’s largest Buddhist temple and has allegedly been around since the seventh century. It’s flanked by the Hōzōmon gate in front and the five-storey Gojūnoto pagoda to the west. All three structures are stunningly beautiful, particularly when the lights are switched on and the buildings are illuminated at night. Bring your camera and get snapping!
Remember to take a wander to the west of Kannondō to check out the tidy garden, featuring stone lanterns and various water features with the pagoda as the backdrop.
Oh and by the way Sensoji is also known as Asakusa Kannon, so don’t be confused if you hear it go by that alternative name.
Head down to the Sumida riverfront for a sweet view of the structures over the water, including the epic Tokyo Skytree and Asahi Beer Hall, topped off with the, erm… interesting Flamme D’Or. Or the golden **** as it’s more commonly known in Tokyo! You can also take a trip along the river from the Tokyo River Cruise building, just see which route takes your fancy.
The best time to head down to the river though is of course spring-time in Tokyo, when you’ll find the riverfront lined with cherry blossom trees. And of course where the sakura blooms, the Tokyoites will be drinking and getting merry. It can be pretty packed out down there – although not to the scale of Ueno Park – but you’ll find a great atmosphere with everyone enjoying the visual feast of the blossoms. And sake.
Being a working man’s area (or woman’s!) there’s a multitude of places to eat in Asakusa, although you may be surprised at how early some of them close. Tempura restaurants seem to dominate, and you’ll be able to smell them in the vicinity – That’s frying for you!
You’ll also find the standard wealth of sushi choices dotted around the district. And if you need to keep costs down you can also make use of the mass of 7-Elevens and Family Marts – this is Asia of course. You’ll find even better choices though in the Ozeki Supermarket over the road from Kaminarimon, who offer a great range of fresh bentos (box meals) daily, and the basement of the Matsuya department store houses a massive fresh food hall. Even if you’re not feeling too adventurous, you can pick up some ace snacks such as yakitori skewers.
So there’s no way you should go hungry for long in Asakusa!
Handily for all potential visitors Asakusa is always one of Tokyo’s transport hubs. It does have one of the metro lines named after it after all. Both that one and the Ginza line run through Asakusa station.
You’ll also find direct trains running from Haneda Airport directly into the metro line, bringing you to Asakusa. And on the flip side you’ll find regular direct trains taking you from Asakusa metro to Narita Airport, meaning it’s easy to arrive and leave from Asakusa pre and post flight.
And handily located at the front of the Matsuya building is the Tobu Asakusa station, meaning trips out of Tokyo to destinations along the various Tobu lines are easily accessed – Nikko being one of the most popular, as your author himself experienced.
Whilst you’ll have to head out of the area for pretty much any sort of nightlife, you can still grab some scenic drinks at the Asahi Sky Room. Head for the 22nd floor of the Asahi Super Dry building, it’s next to the one with the interesting golden topping… The Khaosan hostel group also have their own bar located just across the river. It’s tiny, but you’ll find a good international crowd in there most nights.
And for a uniquely Japanese experience, you can get your feline fix at a couple of Cat Cafes in Asakusa. Just play gently!
So make sure to stop by Asakusa when you hit Japan’s colossal capital, you might just find it’s the perfect combination of old and new that ticks your Tokyo cultural boxes.
Have you seen the sights of Asakusa? And what’s your favourite part of Tokyo?