Daytrip to Asakusa

By on June 10, 2014
In the 1930’s, cinemas playing foreign films opened with live translatons and sound effects by a ‘benshi’ who acted out all the parts using a variety of different voices , sometimes ad-libbing jokes.
Prior to 1940, Asakusa was the heart of Tokyo’s nightlife. During the Edo period, this gastronomic, artistic and sensual playground was home to commoners, gangsters and priests. It was also located a stone’s throw from the pleasure district of Yoshiwara, where legal prostitution flourished until outlawed nationwide. A popular spot for geisha and kabuki theatre, it was not uncommon at the time to find magicians, acrobats, comedians or performing monkeys entertaining the passing parade at any time of the day.

Located in Taito ward on the banks of the Sumida River on Tokyo’s northern fringe, Asakusa remains a fine example of shitamachi (literally meaning ‘downtown’, and referring to those areas whose elevation was below the castle but within the city limits). It lost its luster as people started moving westward in the aftermath of the Great Earthquake of 1923, and then again after the fire bombings of World War II.

Today, Asakusa is best known as the home of Sensoji, or Asakusa Kannon Temple, established over thirteen hundred years ago to honor the Buddhist goddess of mercy after two fisherman caught a small, golden statuette, threw it back and then caught it again.

Screen shot 2014-05-26 at 8.18.39 AMWhile remaining a more traditional and thus quieter district, where few buildings more than 60 years old remain, ryokans, small-scare apartments and budget accommodations abound. Asakusa also hosts myriad matsuri (festivals) during which the streets are choked with revelers.

But Sensoji is at Asakusa’s heart. Frequented by a steady stream of worshippers wafting incense over themselves and trooping up the steps to pray and donate, Tokyo’s largest Buddhist temple is flanked to the west by Gojunoto (5-story pagoda), reputedly containing some of the ashes of the Buddha, and behind it to the east by Asakusa Jinja, a Shinto shrine devoted to protecting the Buddhist temple. It is most notable as the focal point of the popular and boisterous Sanja Matsuri festival held in late May, which floods the streets with more than two million revelers.

Surrounding the temple grounds are a variety of intersecting back streets, lanes and alleyways peppered with small, family-run restaurants, various retail clothing and fabric stores, kimono shops, artisans, sushi and eel shops, as well as a plethora of souvenir stores, making Asakusa quaint, inviting and very pedestrian friendly.

Donkey TrampHowever if your time is limited, then the best place to do some quick one-stop shopping, or to sample some freshly grilled senbei (soy-flavoured rice crackers wrapped in seaweed) or other traditional Japanese snacks, is the Nakamise shopping arcade, which starts as you pass under the giant lantern goes through Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate) and stretches to Hozomon, Sensoji’s main gate, notable for the giant straw waraji (sandal) hanging on one side, and guarded by ferocious-looking lion gods.

For those interested in taking a short waterbus cruise along the adjacent Sumida River, not five minutes away is the wharf, at the foot of the Asahi Brewery head office building, easily recognizable by its large golden blob designed by French architect Philippe Starck.

To live in Asakusa is to take a step back into Japanese history. While not what it once was, it remains an area of old-world charm. If only visiting, and to really get a feel for this part of town, taking a weekday stroll at a more leisurely pace compared to fighting the throngs of locals and tourists that gather on weekends, is surely the way to go.

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