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A walking tour of Asakusa

If anything remains of old Tokyo, Asakusa is it. This is where you'll find narrow streets lined with small residential homes, women in kimono, Tokyo's oldest and most popular temple, and quaint shops selling boxwood combs, fans, sweet pastries, and other products of yore.
Sensoji Temple is lit up in Tokyo's downtown Asakusa area, October 2, 2003, as the Japanese capital marks the 400th anniversary of the start of the Edo shugunate, marking the start of the Shugunate government of Edo, the ancient name for Tokyo.Eriko Sugita / REUTERS

Start: Hama Rikyu Garden (Shiodome Station); or Asakusa Station (exit 1 or 3).

Finish: Kappabashi Dori (station: Tawaramachi).

Time: Allow approximately 5 hours, including the boat ride.

Best Times: Tuesday through Friday, when the crowds aren't as big.

Worst Time: Sunday, when Demboin Garden and the shops on Kappabashi Dori are closed.

If anything remains of old Tokyo, Asakusa is it. This is where you'll find narrow streets lined with small residential homes, women in kimono, Tokyo's oldest and most popular temple, and quaint shops selling boxwood combs, fans, sweet pastries, and other products of yore. With its temple market, old-fashioned amusement park, and traditional shops and restaurants, Asakusa preserves the charm of old downtown Edo better than anyplace else in Tokyo. For many older Japanese, a visit to Asakusa is like stepping back to the days of their childhood; for tourists, it provides a glimpse of the way things were.

Pleasure-seekers have been flocking to Asakusa for centuries. Originating as a temple town back in the 7th century, it grew in popularity during the Tokugawa regime, as merchants grew wealthy and whole new forms of popular entertainment arose to cater to them. Theaters for Kabuki and Bunraku flourished in Asakusa, as did restaurants and shops. By 1840, Asakusa had become Edo's main entertainment district. In stark contrast to the solemnity surrounding places of worship in the West, Asakusa's temple market had a carnival atmosphere reminiscent of medieval Europe, complete with street performers and exotic animals. It retains some of that festive atmosphere even today.

The most dramatic way to arrive in Asakusa is by boat from Hama Rikyu Garden (see stop no. 1, below), just as people used to arrive in the olden days. If you want to forgo the boat ride, take the subway directly to Asakusa Station and start your tour from stop no. 2. Otherwise, head to:

1. Hama Rikyu Garden

Located at the south end of Tokyo (station: Shiodome, exit 5, then a 5-min. walk), this is considered by some to be Tokyo's finest garden. It was laid out during the Edo Period in a style popular at the time, in which surrounding scenery was incorporated into its composition. It contains an inner tidal pool, bridges draped with wisteria, moon-viewing pavilions, and teahouses.

Boats depart the garden to make their way along the Sumida River hourly or more frequently between 10:20am and 3:50pm, with the fare to Asakusa costing ¥620 ($5.15). Although much of what you see along the working river today is only concrete embankments, I recommend the trip because it affords a different perspective of Tokyo -- barges making their way down the river and high-rise apartment buildings with laundry fluttering from balconies, warehouses, and superhighways. The boat passes under approximately a dozen bridges during the 40-minute trip, each one completely different. During cherry blossom season, thousands of cherry trees lining the bank make the trip particularly memorable.

Upon your arrival in Asakusa, walk away from the boat pier a couple of blocks inland, where you'll soon see the colorful Kaminarimon Gate on your right. Across the street on your left is the:

2. Asakusa Information Center

Located at 2-18-9 Kaminarimon (tel. 03/3842-5566), the center is open daily from 9:30am to 8pm and is staffed by English-speaking volunteers from 10am to 5pm. Stop here to pick up a map of the area and to ask directions to restaurants and sights. In addition, note the huge Seiko clock on the center's facade -- a music clock that performs every hour on the hour from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mechanical dolls re-enact scenes from several of Asakusa's most famous festivals.

Then it's time to head across the street to the:

3. Kaminarimon Gate

The gate is unmistakable with its bright red colors and 220-pound lantern hanging in the middle. The statues inside the gate are of the god of wind to the right and the god of thunder to the left, ready to protect the deity enshrined in the temple. The god of thunder is particularly fearsome -- he has an insatiable appetite for navels.

To the left of the gate, on the corner, is:

4. Tokiwado Kaminari Okoshi

This open-fronted confectionery has been selling rice-based sweets (okoshi) for 250 years and is popular with visiting Japanese buying gifts for the folks back home. It's open daily 9am to 9 p.m.

Once past Kaminarimon gate, you'll find yourself immediately on a pedestrian lane called:

5. Nakamise Dori

This leads straight to the temple. Nakamise means "inside shops," and historical records show that vendors have sold wares here since the late 17th century. Today Nakamise Dori is lined on both sides with tiny stall after tiny stall, many owned by the same family for generations. If you're expecting austere religious artifacts, however, you're in for a surprise: Sweets, shoes, barking toy dogs, Japanese crackers (called sembei), bags, umbrellas, Japanese dolls, T-shirts, fans, masks, and traditional Japanese accessories are all sold. How about a brightly colored straight hairpin -- and a black hairpiece to go with it? Or a temporary tattoo in the shape of a dragon? This is a great place to shop for souvenirs, gifts, and items you have no earthly need for -- a little bit of unabashed consumerism on the way to spiritual purification.

Take a Break--If you're hungry for lunch, there are a number of possibilities in the neighborhood. Chinya, 1-3-4 Asakusa, just west of Kaminarimon Gate on Kaminarimon Dori, has been serving sukiyaki and shabu-shabu since 1880. To the south of Kaminarimon Gate is Namiki Yabu Soba, 2-11-9 Kaminarimon, Asakusa's best-known noodle shop. For Western food, head to the other side of the Sumida River, where on the 22nd floor of the Asahi Beer Tower is La Ranarita, 1-23-1 Azumabashi, a moderately priced Italian restaurant with great views of Asakusa; and the utilitarian Sky Lounge with inexpensive beer, wine, and drinks.

Near the end of Nakamise Dori, as you head toward the temple, you'll pass a kindergarten on your left, followed by a five-story red-and-gold:

6. Pagoda

This is a 1970 remake of one constructed during the time of the third shogun, Iemitsu, in the 17th century.

A low-lying building connected to the pagoda is the gateway to the gem of this tour: a hidden garden, one of Asakusa's treasures, just a stone's throw from Nakamise Dori but barely visible on the other side of the kindergarten. Most visitors to Asakusa pass it by, unaware of its existence, primarily because it isn't open to the general public. However, anyone can visit it simply by asking for permission, which you can obtain by entering the building connected to the pagoda at the left. Go inside, turn right, and walk to the third door to the left; you'll be asked to sign your name and will be given a map showing the entrance to the garden, which is open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 3pm. However, because the garden is on private grounds belonging to the Demboin Monastery, it's often closed for functions (call tel. 03/3842-0181 to see whether it's open, or trust to luck).

Once you've obtained permission, retrace your steps down Nakamise past the kindergarten, take the first right onto Demboin Dori, and then enter the second gate on your right. This is the entrance to:

7. Demboin Garden

The gate to Demboin Garden (also spelled Dempoin Garden) may be locked. If so, ring the doorbell to be let in. You'll find yourself in a peaceful oasis in the midst of bustling Asakusa, in a countryside setting that centers on a pond filled with carp and turtles. Enshu Kobori, a tea-ceremony master and famous landscape gardener who also designed a garden for the shogun's castle, designed the garden in the 17th century. Because most people are unaware that the garden exists or that it's accessible, you may find yourself the sole visitor. The best view is from the far side of the pond, where you can see the temple building and pagoda above the trees.

Return to Nakamise Dori and resume your walk north to the second gate, which opens onto a square filled with pigeons and a large:

8. Incense Burner

This is where worshippers "wash" themselves to ward off or help cure illness. If, for example, you have a sore throat, be sure to rub some of the smoke over your throat for good measure.

The building dominating the square is:

9. Sensoji Temple

Sensoji is Tokyo's oldest temple. Founded in the 7th century and therefore already well established long before Tokugawa settled in Edo, Sensoji Temple is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and is therefore popularly called the Asakusa Kannon Temple. According to legend, the temple was founded after two fishermen pulled a golden statue of Kannon from the sea. The sacred statue is still housed in the temple, carefully preserved inside three boxes; even though it's never on display, people still flock to the temple to pay their respects.

Within the temple is a counter where you can buy your fortune by putting a 100-yen coin into a wooden box and shaking it until a long bamboo stick emerges from a small hole. The stick will have a Japanese number on it, which corresponds to one of the numbers on a set of drawers. Take the fortune, written in both English and Japanese, from the drawer that has your number. But don't expect the translation to clear things up; my fortune contained such cryptic messages as "Getting a beautiful lady at your home, you want to try all people know about this," and "Stop to start a trip." If you find that your fortune raises more questions than it answers or if you simply don't like what it has to say, you can conveniently negate it by tying it to one of the wires provided for this purpose just outside the main hall.

To the right (east) of the temple is the rather small:

10. Nitemmon Gate

Built in 1618, this is the only structure on temple grounds remaining from the Edo Period; all other buildings, including Sensoji Temple and the pagoda, were destroyed in a 1945 air raid.

On the northeast corner of the grounds is a small orange shrine, the:

11. Asakusa Jinja Shrine

The shrine was built in 1649 by Iemitsu Tokugawa, the third Tokugawa shogun, to commemorate the two fishermen who found the statue of Kannon and their village chief. Its architectural style, called Gongen-zukuri, is the same as Toshogu Shrine's in Nikko. West of Sensoji Temple is a gardenlike area of lesser shrines and memorials, flowering bushes, and a stream of carp.

Farther west still is:

12. Hanayashiki

This is a small and corny amusement park that first opened in 1853 and still draws in the little ones.

Most of the area west of Sensoji Temple (the area to the left if you stand facing the front of the temple) is a small but interesting part of Asakusa popular among Tokyo's older working class. This is where several of Asakusa's old-fashioned pleasure houses remain, including bars, restaurants, strip shows, traditional Japanese vaudeville, and so-called "love hotels," which rent rooms by the hour.

If you keep walking west, past the Asakusa View Hotel, within 10 minutes you'll reach:

13. Kappabashi-dougugai Dori

Generally referred to as Kappabashi Dori, Tokyo's wholesale district for restaurant items has shop after shop selling pottery, chairs, tableware, cookware, lacquerware, rice cookers, noren, and everything else needed to run a restaurant. And yes, you can even buy those models of plastic food you've been drooling over in restaurant displays. Ice cream, pizza, sushi, mugs foaming with beer -- they're all here, looking like the real thing. (Stores close about 5pm.)

Winding Down--The Asakusa View Hotel, on Kokusai Dori Avenue between Sensoji Temple and Kappabashi Dori, has several restaurants and bars, including the clubby Ice House (the hotel's main bar), a coffee shop, and Japanese, Chinese, and French restaurants. Another good place to end a day of sightseeing in Asakusa is Ichimon, 3-12-6 Asakusa, near the intersection of Kokusai and Kototoi avenues. Decorated like a farmhouse, it specializes in different types of sake. For inexpensive dining in a convivial, rustic setting, head to Sometaro, 2-2-2 Nishi-Asakusa, just off Kokusai Dori, where you cook your own okonomiyaki or fried noodles at your table.

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