Tokyo Travel Tip | Asakusa
A Guide to Asakusa, the Epicenter for Old Tokyo Atmosphere
To be honest, it requires a bit of «Zen» to tune out all the tourist hubbub at Asakusa. But when you look beyond the rivers of souvenirs and peer into the matrix of old, so to speak, there are delicious flavors to taste and magnificent sights to behold.
There are more authentic old towns to be found elsewhere in Tokyo, like Yanaka Ginza or Ningyocho for instance, but nowhere is the concentration of old Tokyo atmosphere more tightly packed than in Asakusa.
Choosing the right time, and the right stuff to look for, makes the area all the more enjoyable. The hunt for tasty street foods is almost as fun as perusing the countless kitchen ware shops at Kappabashi.
The lunchtime atmosphere at the local hormone izakayas never fails to excite us. Thereafter, it is nice to take a calming stroll along the Sumida River promenade, before grabbing a drink at the Asakusa Underground Mall, a hidden gem right under Asakusa Station.
The History of Asakusa in a Nutshell
At the heart of Asakusa lies Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. According to legend, the temple was established by a fisherman ca. 628 AD. Around this time, he found a Buddhist statue in the Sumida River, and took it as a sign for him to enter priesthood. His house was transformed into the structure we now know as Senso-ji.
About a hundred years later, in the Edo period (1603-1867), Asakusa developed into an entertainment district. It was a perfect location for such activities, since it was close to Kuramae, a storage district for rice, which was as much a currency as cash back in those days.
By trading rice for cash, the storage keepers started to earn more than they could use. Thus, Asakusa started blooming, with kabuki theaters, jôruri scenes, and geisha houses aplenty for the yuppie keepers to flaunt their wealth.
The Asakusa we know today is largely rebuilt and reconstructed, since much of the structures in the area was destroyed by fire bombings during WWII. The golden age of Asakusa is history, unfortunately, but the remnants of history still lingers around every corner.
Numbers, Dates, and Fun Facts about Asakusa
Asakusa is located at the north-eastern corner of central Tokyo. In the mid-1920s it was the densest populated area in Tokyo (source), but it has since become mid-tier in terms of Tokyo ward-density (source).
It used to be a very popular entertainment district before WWII, but thereafter it gradually developed into the sight-seers paradise as we know it today. In its heyday, though, Asakusa was a hot spot for cultural innovation.
In 1903, the first movie house in Japan was opened in Rokku, a theater street in Asakusa’s sixth district. The cinema complex was called «Denkikan». Before long, many similar movie houses opened in the same area. The so-called cinema city came to be an image of Japanese modernization.
More precisely, denki (meaning electricity) was the symbol of modernization. This is why the first western-style bar in Tokyo started selling their famous cocktail called Denki Bran, or Denki Brandy as it was first labeled.
The pub was first established as a restaurant in 1880, but re-branded itself as Kamiya Bar in 1912. To this day, you can find this traditional beer hall right next to Asakusa Station, and they still serve their legendary denki bran cocktail.
One year after Denkikan opened, in 1904, trams started running between Asakusa and Ueno, and between Asakusabashi and Kaminarimon. In 1927, the first subway line in Asia also started running between Asakusa and Ueno.
How to get to Asakusa?
If you travel to Tokyo, odds are that you will quickly get familiar with the JR Yamanote Line. It goes in a circle around inner Tokyo and stops at all the famous towns, such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Ikebukuro, Shimbashi (close to Ginza), Ueno, Akihabara, and Tokyo Station.
If you take the JR Yamanote Line to Tokyo Station, Shimbashi, or Ueno, just transfer to the Ginza Line, and it will take you straight to Asakusa. Other subway lines that will take you to Asakusa are Asakusa Subway Line, Tobu Skytree Line, and Tsukuba Express line.
It is also possible to reach Asakusa by bus or boat, which are much more scenic routes, but also more time-consuming. A day is quickly spent in Asakusa, so choose your mode of transport wisely. Going to and from Asakusa will most often take more than an hour of your day, just by riding the subway. If you want to take the scenic route, your time in Asakusa is quickly cut down to half a day or less.
Key Sightseeing Spots in Asakusa
Asakusa is an obligatory part of Tokyo sightseeing, but for that reason it also has its ups and downs. The tourist season can be trying, while the off-season is surprisingly calm for such a center of old Tokyo culture and atmosphere. We keep returning for the hidden gems, but first and foremost, it is a treasure trove of sights:
Senso-ji and Kaminarimon
The main attraction in Asakusa, at least for first time visitors, are the sights. And the center of attention is Senso-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo. Right next to it is a picturesque five-story pagoda and Asakusa Shrine, all of which are sights to behold.
Before arriving at the temple ground, on your way from Asakusa Station, you will find Kaminarimon, a humongous entrance gate. Its name translates to «Thunder Gate», which perfectly fits the never-ending «lightning bolts» that flashes at this exasperating selfie-spot.
Sumida River | Calming Promenades, River Cruises, and a Golden Poop
The Sumida River Promenade is an oasis we much prefer over the river cruise. Don’t get us wrong, it is interesting to see Asakusa and Tokyo from an angle as unchanged as the riverways, but there is something about tightly scheduled conveyor-belt experiences that turns us off.
We much prefer to take a stroll along the river, either to or from Kuramae station. The area might not offer the most obvious sights, but the quiet and slow-moving atmosphere in the adjacent neighborhoods is a nice contrast to the high paced everyday life elsewhere in Tokyo. The last five years or so, there has even popped up a handful of independent cafés at Kuramae, perfect for quiet coffee breaks.
Skytree | From Asakusa to Mount Fuji
A nice walk from either Kuramae (ca 30 min) or Asakusa Station (ca 20 min) you will find Skytree, a 634-meter-tall tower with arguably the best view in Tokyo. On clear days, you can even catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the horizon.
Skytree is of course also a tourist trap, but once you make your way to the top, it is well-worth the hassle. The view is simply unforgettable. And what is more, at the bottom of Skytree are some very nice, albeit pricy restaurants. For me as a Norwegian traveler, the prices were quite affordable. Sadly, the amazing tempura place I tried (Tempura Tsunahachi) was closed for good because of Corona.
More sightseeing spots are covered in the next sections, which also covers some of our favorite places and experiences in Asakusa:
Key Food & Drink Spots in Asakusa
Once the sightseeing is out of the way, let the taste-testing commence, or better yet, do them in tandem. The street food is why we keep coming back to Asakusa. There is so much to try and taste that we have not even gotten half-way through it all during the first year of me living in Japan. (Roughly 10 day trips or so.)
Nakamise-Dori & Denbôin-Dori | A Street Food Smorgasbord
These two shopping streets are impossible to miss when visiting Asakusa. Just follow the stream of people, and soon enough you’ll find more treats to taste than your stomach can handle.
Our favorite is the sweet potato pastry «oimo pai» at Funawa. They are like the most delicate bite-size danishes you ever bit into, perfectly balanced with a sweet potato filling. Not too sweet, not too big, just enough to get your taste buds started.
Asakusa Hoppy Street | Authentic Izakaya Street Diners by the Dozen
Moving on from sweets and meats to hormone/akiresu stews and cheap drinks. A short stroll from the tourist bonanza at Nakamise-dori, you’ll find Hoppy Street, which is lined up with cheap fun izakayas of the lowbrow kind.
Why is it called «Hoppy» street? Because most places serve a beer-like beverage called Hoppy. It is almost alcohol free, but it’s usually mixed with Japanese Shôchû. It has become very popular in Tokyo as an alternative to beer for those who are struck with diabetes or gout.
We quite like Hoppy, and we hope it will be the next big thing after hard seltzer. It surely got some great publicity in Fast & Furious 9. If anyone wondered what the girls were drinking in that fake corner of Tokyo, it was a Hoppy, straight from the bottle, like no-one ever drinks them at Hoppy Street ;p
It might not be the cleanest places in town, but the prices are unbeatable, and the atmosphere is as authentic as in any of Tokyo’s yokochos (drinking alleys). Here you will find salarymen and tourists side by side, gorging on innards and downing brews.
Asakusa Underground Mall | The Best Hidden Gem in Town
Connecting to the Ekimise shopping mall is Asakusa Underground Mall. It is not so noticeable, but the entrance is right in front of the Ekimise building, when coming from the large crossing in Asakusa. Another entrance is found close to MacDonald’s in the start of the Shin-Nakamise shopping street.
Asakusa Underground Mall was the third of its kind to be built in Tokyo in 1955, and now, it’s the oldest one still in existence. The stores here are nothing special, but the atmosphere feels more real than anything else in Asakusa. The dirt-cheap barber, the suspiciously bootleg-like DVD-shop, the fortune-teller, and the standing soba restaurant all adds to the potpourri that makes this one of our favorite Asakusa spots.
Unfortunately, the place has died out because of the pandemic, but we keep hoping that it will survive and keep its allure for more visitors to see. Hopefully we can have a drink at one of the charming bars in the Asakusa Underground Mall soon, and perhaps we might even meet some fellow Tokyo explorers at the same time.
Key Shopping Spots in Asakusa
When the topic of «Tokyo Shopping» is brought up, Asakusa is usually not the first place to be mentioned. And yes, Asakusa is far from shopaholic paradises, like Omote Sando, Ginza, Shibuya or Ikebukuro. For the right crowd, however, Asakusa offers some quite unique shopping alternatives.
Kappabashi | Kitchenware Heaven
For hobby chefs and interior decorators, Kappabashi is like stepping into the world’s largest candy store. Or rather, a street lined with candy shops for next level cooks and other culinarians.
Kappabashi mainly aims their business at restaurant owners, but there are plenty of wares and goods to excite food enthusiast of all ages and levels of dedication. If you like to cook, then Kappabashi is a must-see place in Asakusa.
Nakamise-Dori, Denbôin-Dori & Nishi-Sando | Souvenir Hell
Nakamise-Dori and Denbôin-Dori are kind of unavoidable when you go to Asakusa, but as far as shopping goes, they get old pretty quick. These two shopping streets are of course a key feature of Asakusa, but they are also filled with tacky souvenirs and useless trinkets.
If you are looking for souvenirs, Nishi-Sando, just a stone’s throw away, is a much better option. Here you might actually find some antiques, or at least souvenirs that convincingly pass as antiques. Nakamise and Denbôin do redeem themselves by serving ample amounts of delicious street food though.
If you are looking for Kimono accessories, it is worth noting that Denbôin-Dori is packed with shops for this particular purpose. This is the place to come if you’re on the lookout for netsuke kimono toggles, kanzashi hairpins, or tsuge-gushi (boxwood combs).
Shin-Nakamise | An Everyday Adventure
As you stroll down Nakamise-dori, you might notice a crossroads leading into a modern looking Japanese shopping street. This street is called Shin-Nakamise (New Nakamise).
Shin-Nakamise is filled with souvenirs, but it also houses nice cafes, design clothing stores, and one of the best selections of face masks in town. Shin-Nakamise is more commonplace than the other shopping streets in the area, which has a certain appeal when visiting Asakusa for the nth time.
Asakusa in Short
So, there you have it. In our opinion, Asakusa is well-worth the visit, and not just for the sights. At first, we got blinded by the hordes of tourists, but there is more to the old entertainment district than meets the eye.
Not that the sights aren’t entertaining. Visits to Senso-ji, Sumida River and Skytree resulted in some unforgettable Tokyo moments that we would not want to be without.
That said, the more we explore the area, the more excited we get. Asakusa is a melting pot of flavors, smells, sights, and culture that takes more than a few visits to get acquainted with. Luckily, it is a fun journey filled with experiences that cater to all kinds of explorers, be it pastry-addicted sweet-tooths, or culture-craving history-hounds.
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