About Tokyo's historical Asakusa area, home to the famous Kaminarimon and Asakusa Temple.
When Japanese hear the words “Tokyo shitamachi,” many will think of Asakusa. But probably more than a few Japanese will struggle to provide a clear answer when asked “What is a shitamachi?”
This is because the definition of the term “shitamachi” that was born during the Edo period currently remains unclear. At that time, low-lying areas close to Tokyo Bay in which commercial activity flourished were called shitamachi, yet after that it is said that it became unclear as to where the shitamachi were located since place names changed or areas became integrated. When pressed for details by foreigners, Japanese will struggle to answer but the majority would recognize the zone of Asakusa as a “Tokyo shitamachi.” Asakusa is a town located on Tokyo’s eastern side, about 30 minutes from Shibuya by Tokyo Metro’s Ginza line. Not only are there many tourists from foreign countries, it is also a popular sightseeing spot for many Japanese as well. One could say it is the best town in Japan to get a sense of the Edo period.
We recommend that foreign visitors try wearing a kimono in Asakusa. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time into the Edo period, and it’s a great deal of fun to stroll around the town with a kimono. There are shops with reasonable plans starting from 3,000 JPY for a one-day rental, and some such as Asakusa Shichihenge have staff who can speak English, so if time permits why not try this out?
■Address: 2-29-21, Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo, 111-0032, Japan
■Business hours: 10:00am through 5:00pm
■Closed: Irregular schedule
A portion of the website is available in English
What sort of history can be found in Asakusa?
If you come to Asakusa, you must visit the area’s representative temple of Senso-ji. This is Tokyo’s oldest temple, dating back to about 1400 years ago when it enshrined a figure of Kannon (a Buddhist deity of mercy) that was discovered in a river in the year 628.
At the gate to the temple premises you will notice a giant red lantern with the characters for “Kaminarimon” written in black charcoal letters, and this is a popular place for visitors to take pictures.
Passing through the gate and entering the premises you will find yourself on Nakamise-dori, a street lined with various consecutive shops. At the end of this street is the Hozmon gate with niozo (guardian statues) and large waraji (Japanese straw sandals), and beyond that are a five-story pagoda and large Buddhist statue, making this an extensive spot with a variety of things to see and enjoy.
Now that you’ve ventured this far to the temple, the next step is to worship. The way of worshipping is not difficult at all. First, you’ll wash your hands and rinse your mouth to purify yourself at the place with flowing water known as mizuya. There is a certain way to do this: first pick up the large ladle with your right hand and wash your left hand, then after switching hands and washing your right hand, once again switch the ladle to your right hand, ladle water into your cupped left hand, and use that to rinse your mouth. One point of caution is that you should not let your mouth directly come in contact with the ladle.
When you arrive at the main shrine, put some money into the offering box (small coins are enough), put your hands together and then bow once. At the end, bow once more and your worship is finished. It’s simple, isn’t it? Some people mistake this part of the process for another worship style that involves bowing twice, clapping twice, then bowing once, but this is not for a temple but rather for a shrine, so be careful not to confuse the two!
After your visit to the temple, you’ll probably start to be feeling a little hungry. But don’t worry! The approximately 250 meter Asakusa Nakamise shopping street that stretches from Kaminarimon to Senso-ji counts about 90 shops and is a popular place to enjoy Asakusa’s specialties.
With options that include ningyoyaki, agemanju, senbei, okaki, dango, and dorayaki, you’ll certainly have trouble deciding which to eat.
Another point of caution is that eating while walking is prohibited not only at Nakamise but in all of Asakusa, because one might dirty other people’s clothing in these crowded areas. Thus, you’ll want to take advantage of the seats at the shop and sit down to eat.
One more popular street (shopping street) is an area called “Hoppy-dori” or also “Nikomi-dori” and here people who enjoy alcohol can be seen happily drinking from noon onwards.
Hoppy is a beverage that tastes like beer and is mixed with shochu to create an alcoholic drink. Nikomi is a dish made from the internal organs of cows and pigs, mixed with carrots, daikon (Japanese radish), tofu, and konjak, and seasoned with soy sauce and miso. Both of these are popular items on the menu at Japan’s izakaya.
This street on the western side of the Senso-ji temple grounds has many shops with tables outside. If you come here the thing to try is Hoppy with motsu-nikomi. Since many people here are buzzed with alcohol, there is a very open and sociable atmosphere, and it’s fun to chat with the people sitting next to you. In addition to Hoppy, there is also “Denki Bran,” a liquor developed in the Meiji period that is made by blending wine, gin、 and vermouth with a brandy base, as well as several other original beverages. We recommend trying these various beverages but be careful about drinking too much!
Asakusa is certainly famous for its history, but how about enjoying its shitamachi atmosphere and more everyday tastes of the Japanese as well?