Japan Series – Tokyo: Asakusa

The Asakusa district is a bustling yet charming area filled with market-style shops and a home to the popular temple Senso-ji. It’s easy to find – simply hop on the Asakusa Line on the underground and get off at the Asakusa station.

Shopping District

The neighbourhood is vibrant and colourful, great for a stroll if you’re ready to put up with the tourist crowds. Getting off the beaten path of the Nakamise shopping street as much as possible will allow you to explore the area in a relative peace while still giving you the experience of the local atmospheric shops.

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There are several spots in the area where you can try out taiyaki, the Japanese fish-shaped waffles with a variety of fillings – traditionally this would be red or white bean paste, but if you’re feeling less adventurous chocolate or cream are normally an option too. I must confess that in spite of my best efforts, I’m still struggling to consider beans a suitable dessert ingredient, but some consider it a delicacy.

Senso-ji

The temple is probably Asakusa’s biggest attraction. You reach the main hall by walking through the impressive Hozomon Gate, and then you’re free to explore the temple grounds with  its various smaller shrines – the most eye-catching one is probably the five-storied pagoda. You can learn more about the history of the temple on their official website.

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I am a bit biassed when it comes to Senso-ji as this was the first temple I’ve seen in Japan, meaning this was the first time I witnessed all of the rituals connected with Buddhist or Shinto shrines: Washing your hands at the purification fountains, lighting up incense sticks, offering coins to the gods which involves bowing and clapping (if you spend a few minutes observing the others you’ll learn how to do this quickly) and having your wishes and messages immortalised on wooden plaques called Ema. The experience is tantalising and almost lets you forget about the crowds around you. Enjoy its magic and go with the flow, however do your best to try to be respectful to the local customs – if you’re unsure how to act at a Japanese temple, do your homework here.

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The area looks even more dazzling at night time when most tourists have left and the entire temple is lit up. You can just about see the Tokyo Skytree tower from here, highlighting Tokyo’s typical contrast between the old and the new.

As with most large temples, the area is filled with food market stalls, so if you’re feeling a bit peckish you will be spoiled with choice. Japan’s street food is amazing and I’d encourage you to keep trying out different snacks throughout the day rather than gorging on one big meal that will make sightseeing that much difficult.

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Dining and Entertainment

That being said, once you do have more time to digest in the evening, visit the Waentei-Kikko restaurant at the heart of Asakusa. This will give you an option to try out a typical multi-course meal called kaiseki (although I must admit I found some of the courses harder to stomach than at any other occasions I had kaiseki dishes afterwards).

The owner of the restaurant is friendly and attentive and will check on you several times during your meal, offering stories about how he moved the entire traditional wooden cottage the restaurant is in to Tokyo from the south of Japan.

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The highlight of the evening and the main reason why I’m recommending the place is the shamisen (Japanese guitar) performance the owner gives every night. He’ll explain the different styles of playing to you and take you to a magical musical world with him, all the while you’re enjoying your meal. It must be said that the show, as well as the restaurant itself does target tourists and you will not see any locals here, but it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed nonetheless. Learn more about Waentei-Kikko and how to find it in Asakusa on their website.

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