Being the biggest city in the world, Tokyo has over seven million inhabitants. And within the city, there are many districts and neighborhoods famed for their different histories and characteristics. I could try to cover all of the amazing things in Tokyo and what each district holds, but that would be too big of a job.
However, Asakusa is an amazing district in Tokyo that still has a bit of the old Japan feel. It’s a great place to discover and explore when first visiting Tokyo. So read over this if you want to plan out your trip and what you’ll see and take part in, or where you’ll stay and eat.
PLACES TO EXPERIENCE IN ASAKUSA
Founded in 628, Sensoji Temple is the oldest temple in Tokyo. Next to the Sumida-gawa River, it is an amazing sight to see with its enormous red paper lantern at the entrance that bares the inscription “Kaminari-mon,” or, “Thunder Gate.”
The temple is protected by fearsome statues of Buddhist Nio (Buddha’s protectors, Agyo and Nimon) by its gates. To be honest, they look pretty scary, but I guess that’s the point.
Many visitors and worshipers visit it throughout the year to say prayers and see its magnificent architecture. Festivals take place in and around Sensoji Temple, which draws even more people to come and take part in the festivities and rituals. With its large red pillars, god sized gates, artistic statues, and beautiful lanterns, it’d be hard to forget something this crazy cool.
Asakusa Engei Hall
Asakusa was once home to many Kabuki theaters and was a lively scene of actors and entertainers. But now it houses only a few theaters, one of them being the Engei Hall in the Rokku entertainment district.
The beautiful and colorful Engei Hall seats 340 and mainly does Rakugo (comedic monologues). It also provides magic and acrobatic performances, Manzai (professional stand up comedy), and Kodan which are professional story tellings.
Engei Hall is known for talents being discovered and great productions that amaze and amuse its audience. For an inexpensive entrance fee you can see traditional and modern acts throughout the day. It’s a great way to fill your visit up with culture and entertainment.
Directly behind the Sensoji Temple is Hanayashiki, Japan’s first modern amusement park. Opened in 1853, it was sadly destroyed two times, once in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and the second in World War II. But since its reconstruction in 1949, it has had many faithful supporters. Even when the Japanese economic bubble burst in the 1990’s, and many amusement parks went under, people still returned to the park and supported it through the hard times.
Not quite Disneyland, but with its fun and quirky rides and activities, Hanayashiki gives you a feeling of nostalgia and wonder. You aren’t going to find something like this in the states or Europe.
Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center
The first thing that will catch your attention about this building will be its crazy cool architecture. Each floor is layered glass with wooden pillars to make an eight floor building with a viewing deck.
It does have very good information on the history of the Asakusa district, but the viewing deck is a great place to see amazing sights and drink a cup of coffee. Paired with a cafe, you can relax and see the temple and surrounding buildings, as well as Tokyo’s Skytree, the tallest skyscraper in the city.
CULTURAL AND TRADITIONAL THINGS TO DO
Bathhouses have been around a very long time in Japan. And Asakusa’s Jakotsuyu bathhouse has also been around for a quite some time. Beloved even over a hundred years ago, it is a naturally heated mineral spring for all ages and genders to enjoy.
Many don’t feel comfortable bathing in a same sex bathhouse (or maybe that’s just me?), so Jakotsuyu provides you with the discretion you need by splitting up the genders.
It’s an amazing place to just relax as the steam rises about you and soak in the warmth and minerals.
Be warned that it is a bit hard to find. Google maps hasn’t come out with a feature for exploring alleys sadly, so trying to find it that way will be a bust. There will be signs guiding you to Jakotsuyu and locals are happy to point you in the right direction, so don’t cross it off your list just yet.
The Japanese tea ceremony has been a part of their culture for hundreds of years. And the best part is, they still do it! Thankfully Japan has held onto one of its oldest traditions and hasn’t thrown it away for the new.
You can take part in a ceremony for only ¥2,700 ($22.21 USD). And if you want to wear a traditional kimono and take part in the tea ceremony as well, the price will be ¥4,400 ($36.19 USD). You can watch an authority on tea ceremonies make an amazing cup of matcha tea with traditional techniques and tools. You’ll also be able to participate, but you should probably know that’s it’s not going to taste as good as the expert’s matcha.
Dressing up in a kimono and being part of a super cool tea ceremony, now that’s sounds like my well… cup of tea.
If you’re tired and need to get off your feet or you just want a really cool experience, taking a rickshaw tour is a great way to see Asakusa. A Rickshaw is best described as a man powered vehicle, and it can last up to an hour depending on how much money you want to spend.
Even if there’s a slight language barrier, the guides are super nice and will show you around Asakusa and its many sights.
And when it’s all over, they’ll take a great photo of you on the rickshaw at a very scenic place. It’s a wonderful way to make memories and have an awesome photo to share with your friends on Facebook.
This is the biggest festival in Tokyo with two million people showing up to take part in the festivities in Asakusa. People from different neighborhoods of Asakusa are represented as Mikoshi teams. Mikoshi are highly decorated and elaborate palanquins that are supported by many people holding the poles underneath. They can weigh up to a ton, but despite this, the different teams will bounce them up and down or toss them up in the air in competitions. It’s a great way to show teamwork and a ganbatte spirit (which means “do your best!”)
There are also Geisha events that take place within the festival on the second floor of the Asakusa Kenban. Tickets are required, but the rare sight of Geishas in Tokyo can be seen throughout the festival. Geishas take part in the parade, so it’s a great opportunity to see traditional Japanese customs still holding strong.
Being the world’s oldest firework festival, it was started back in 1732 when the Shogun (military leader of Japan) approved a fireworks festival to lighten the spirits of the people who were going through a horrible famine.
It used to be that it was highly competitive and two different teams would try to win the crowd each year with their different firework displays.
Now thousands of people claim spots to watch the amazing fireworks shoot off into the night sky. Many people wear their colorful yukata which are a casual summer kimono. If you wear your street clothes, you’ll probably feel a bit awkward. Unless you really don’t care, then you’ll be fine.
You can eat great food, while you relax and watch the colors in the dark sky dazzle you.
The firework display is so grand and spectacular, that it’s a festival you’ll want to capture with a camera. Or just be in the moment and make beautiful memories with your mind.
The rooster (tori) is one of the twelve animals of the zodiac. Remember those paper mats at Chinese restaurants that showed you the years of the animal zodiac? No? Alright forget I mentioned it.
Tori-no-ichi is a festival celebrating the days of the rooster. The festival celebrates every twelve days in November which could be two to three days out of the month depending on the year.
Fairs are set up near shrines with open air stalls selling goods and treats.
Shrines are also set up to the deity of good fortune and successful business and small decorated kumade rakes are bought from stalls to symbolize raking in wealth and good fortune. When one of these small rakes are bought, the seller and buyer clap their hands together rhythmically with a bit of shouting in celebration. It can be a fun sight to see and take part in.
Hagoita-ichi New Year Festival
Taking part in the Hagoita-ichi festival is another way to bring in the New Year. Granted it isn’t the same as watching New York drop the ball over TV, but it’s still a fun and beautiful way to celebrate the ending and beginning of another year. Alright, so that actually sounds way better.
Near the beautiful Sensoji temple are many open air stalls selling new years decorations and trinkets as well as great food. You can interact with the stall owners on this wonderful night and take in the beautiful decorations and lighting.
It’s a lot more magical than hiding under your covers as soon as you hear gunshots being fired into the air. And I suppose it’s a lot safer as well.
SHOPPING IN ASAKUSA
In all of Tokyo this is the best place to buy Japanese street food and souvenirs. Thriving since the sixteen hundreds, there are stalls that are still owned by the same families who have been around for generations.
With an 800 foot walkway, there is a lot to choose from when shopping. Whether you want a useful and authentic souvenir or will settle for something that’s a bit cheesy but worth the memory, it’s a great place to spend your day. Especially when you have freshly cooked sweets in your hand, it makes for a fun experience.
Asakusa has many eateries to choose from when in search of a quick fix or a nice sit down restaurant. This district is known for its many Izakaya, the Japanese version of a pub. Usually being an open air dining experience, you can either find seating under the roof or sit outside and enjoy your meal.
The Japanese go to izakayas for events of all kinds and get togethers, so it’s a great place to relax, grab a drink, eat some great food, and watch life happen all around you.
Izakayas also offer a wide variety of foods, so it’s good way to explore Japanese cuisine if new. So if you’re a bit squeamish about trying sushi or deep fried octopus, there are a lot less scary dishes to choose from.
Asakusa is well known for its tempura, a Japanese dish of battered and deep fried vegetables and seafood. You can get this deep fried deliciousness in many restaurants that specialize in it, but one that comes highly recommended is Daikokuya Tempura. Being around since 1887, it’s definitely created its own distinct tempura dishes. With big portions and a great price, it’s definitely a place you want to stop at if you’re a foodie.
If you want a uniquely traditional Japanese way of lodging, definitely try out a ryokan in Asakusa. Being famous for them, the ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that you usually find in resorts. But Asakusa still has ryokans that date back to eighteen hundreds with great prices for their accommodations.
If you’re a backpacker or just want a good price for an overnight stay, then the Sakura Hostel is a great bet. It’s open 24 hours a day with bilingual staff that accept same day walk-ins (assuming that there are open rooms). It’s a great place to meet fellow travelers and hear their stories, but also save a few bucks.
Ever interested in seeing a bit of the old Japan? As mentioned before, you can see Geisha at the Sanja Matsuri festival, but you can also see them hurrying to events throughout the year. Asakusa is one of the few neighborhoods in Tokyo that still have Geisha, and it’s said that there are around forty still in the district.
Thankfully this is not a thing of the past and you don’t have to look to old black and white photos to see Geisha. You can still see them now with their colorful kimonos and obis and intricate hairdos and makeup.
If you thought that Asakusa and its temples and markets were beautiful to see in the day, then definitely head out for a night walk and see the neighborhood lit up. It’s a beautiful sight to see with buildings and cherry blossom trees being lit up in a light display and transforming them almost into a different attraction.
It’s also a great way to see the nightlife and how the atmosphere changes as the sun goes down.
Asakusa still holds many of its old traditions and buildings which sets it apart from many of the other districts in Tokyo. Japan has launched forward with technology and modernization, but Asakusa still retains some of its authentic traditions and old ways of life.
So feel free to explore the other parts of Tokyo and what they have to offer, but remember that Asakusa can give you an amazing experience of the older Japan.
I hope I was able to provide value to you in this post. If there was something that wasn’t answered or you want to know more about the subject, email me or let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear you out and answer you as best I can.