Tokyo: Shopping and Sightseeing at Asakusa District
The district of Asakusa is one of the places to spend for those who want a more traditional Japanese atmosphere in Tokyo. The district is located in what is collectively known as Shitamachi, meaning “low city”, referring to the low elevation of the area in relation to the Sumida river.
Asakusa used to be famous for being Tokyo’s entertainment district, with the proliferation of theaters and geisha houses during the Edo Period. The area, like most of Tokyo, was heavily damaged during the Second World War. The area was rebuilt after the war, but its role as an entertainment district was surpassed by the other districts in Tokyo especially Shinjuku.
Today, Asakusa is famous for its Senso-ji temple, the Kaminarimon and the 200-meter shopping street that runs from the latter to the former. Tourists on a budget will definitely enjoy the place for most of its attractions are free admission.
The Kaminarimon (雷門, Thunder gate), officially called Fūraijinmon (風雷神門 The Gate of the Gods of Wind and Thunder), is the outer of the two large entrances that lead to the Senso-ji temple. It is 11.7 m tall, 11.4 m wide and covers an area of 69.3 sq. m.
Four statues are housed in the Kamiranimon, two at the front and two on the other side. The statues at the front side are of the Shinto gods Fujin and Raijin, respectively the gods of wind and thunder. They are the 1960 reconstruction of the original statues that were razed during the fire of 1865. At the other side are the statues of the Buddhist god Tenryu and goddess Kinryu, donated in 1978 to commemorate the 1350th anniversary of the goddess Kannon.
Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of the Kaminarimon is the giant red lantern, or chochin, hanging at its center, with the character “雷” written on it, referring to the gate’s name.
The original gate was constructed in 941 by military commander Taira no Kinmasa near Komagata. In 1635 it was moved to its current location. It is also at this point that the gods’ statues were first placed at the gate. Throughout its history, the gate was razed many times. The gate’s current structure was dedicated in December 1960.
NAKAMISE SHOPPING STREET
Right beyond the Kaminarimon is a long stretch of road about 250 meters long leading to the temple grounds, lined up with stores selling mainly foods and souvenir items. Feeling hungry, we actually tried some of their foods. Aside from the traditional food shops, there are also vending machines offering drinks and snacks near Hozomon.
Most of the souvenir items here are usually sold cheaper compared to those in other places. Among the items being sold here include (but not limited to) traditional costumes like Kimono, t-shirts, ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), Buddhist scrolls, katana, mobile phone covers, toys, anime keychains and scale models of Japanese landmarks such as the nearby Tokyo Skytree.
The shopping street was said to have come about during the 18th century when the neighbors of the temple were granted to set up shops along the road leading to the temple. Since then, these shops became part of the living tradition to the pilgrims walking to Senso-ji.
The Hozomon (宝蔵門 “Treasure-House Gate”) is the inner entrance to the Senso-ji. At the center hangs three large lanterns; the largest and the most prominent at the center displaying the name of the town Kobunacho (小舟町). At either side of the southern face (facing Nakamise) are statues representing Nio, the guardian deities of Buddha. The gate is originally called Niomon, named after these statues, before being renamed to Hozomon.
At either side of the northern face (facing the temple) are giant waraji, a kind of traditional Japanese sandals made of straw.
The Hozomon was first built in 942, also by Taro no Kinmisa. Destroyed by fire in 1631, it was rebuilt by Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1636. After standing for more than three centuries, it was destroyed during the aerial bombings of the Second World War. The current structure was built in 1964, using ferro-concrete, built with a donation of 150 million yen from Yonetaro Motoya.
Because the current gate is built using flame-resistant materials, the upper story of Hozomon is used to store the temple’s treasured artifacts, such as the Buddhist scrolls and a copy of Lotus Sutra, a designated Japanese National Treasure.
This is an ancient Buddhist temple dedicated to the goddess of mercy Guan Yin, known in Japanese as Kannon. According to the legend, a statue of Kannon was found in 628 by two fisherman at the Sumida River. The statue was brought by the village chief, who remodeled his house into a temple in Asakusa so that the villagers could worship Kannon.
The Japanese electronics company Canon was in fact named from the goddess.
The first temple was founded in 645, making it the oldest temple in Tokyo. However, the original temple was destroyed during the Second World War. It was later rebuilt and became a symbol of rebirth and peace to the Japanese people. A nearby tree, which was hit by a bomb from the air raids, had regrown from its husk and it became a similar symbol to the temple itself.
At the front of the main temple, there are two structures placed on either side of the road where visitors can know their fortune for 100 yen by drawing a piece of paper called omikuji. Each omikuji is said to tell a person’s fortune ranging in seven types, from the best (excellent luck) to the worst (terrible luck).
After inserting a 100-yen coin, a rod is drawn from the omikuji box. Each rod has a number written on it, and an omikuji sheet is drawn from the corresponding drawer among the shelves. The numbers written at the rods and the drawers are in hanja (Chinese characters used in Japanese writing), so if you have trouble reading them, you can try finding the matching symbols on the rod among the shelves, or you can always ask assistance to those who can read hanja numbers.
It is customary to tie the drawn omikuji if it contains undesirable fortune; it is believed that such impending misfortune will be left behind. We tried drawing an omikuji and I got a neutral fortune, which is not bad.
At the west of Hozomon is a five-story pagoda. Disappointingly, the entire structure is covered with scaffolding during our visit. Maybe it is being renovated so it may continue to stand for at least another century.
If you’re planning to buy a Tokyo Skytree related souvenir, drop by at Asakusa souvenir shops wherein the items are sold cheaper than the souvenir shops located below the tower.
Asakusa is served by the Ginza Subway Line, Asakusa Subway Line, Tsukuba Express and Tobu Railways. It can also be accessed by the Tokyo Water Bus.
- From Tokyo Station
Take the JR Yamanote Line to Kanda Station (2 minutes, 140 yen) and transfer to the Ginza Subway Line for Asakusa (10 minutes, 170 yen).
- From Shinjuku Station
Take the orange JR Chuo Line to Kanda Station (10 minutes, 170 yen) and transfer to the Ginza Subway Line for Asakusa (10 minutes, 170 yen).