|An Asakusa pagoda
Photos by Pam Stoikopoulos
Whether you' a
long-time resident or just passing through Tokyo for a costly couple of days, a visit to
Asakusa the trend-setting neighborhood of the Edo Era is a must. This week Pam Stoikopoulos goes pedestrian and discovers the
freedom of a city-sponsored walking tour.
One of the pitfalls of living
in and around Tokyo is that it's becoming increasingly easy to escape Japan's traditional
elements and surround yourself with all things foreign. Take a stroll through Hiroo,
Roppongi or Odaiba and you might actually forget that you're in the Land of the Rising
Sun. If you're looking to discover the simpler, more historic side of Japan, you need not
head to Kyoto. Instead, take a Sunday subway ride to Asakusa and head for the Asakusa
Tourist Information Center where free tours in English are offered to foreigners.
"At one time all of this land was underwater," Sato-san, our guide says,
indicating the whole of Asakusa, "it was all part of the Sumida river."
Scanning the throngs of people bustling through the streets, it's pretty hard to imagine
that this town once resembled Nagoya after it's most recent typhoon. Legend has it that in
628AD, two fishermen netted a golden statue of Kannon, the female embodiment of Buddha,
while fishing. The head of the village, Hajino Nakatomo saw this as a sign to get
spiritual, remodeling and dedicating his own house to the god: A temple-town was born.
Word spread throughout Japan and, despite several fires, the temple grew both in size and
Though many of the buildings were destroyed during WWII bombings, the current rebuilt
incarnation of the area is modeled after Asakusa's heyday during the Edo period
(1603-1868). It was during this time when theaters, cabarets and Yoshiwara - a red-light
district - emerged, making the area popular because of a new breed of
"goddesses" (i.e. prostitutes).
Starting from the Tourist Information Center at 3pm, the tour commenced with the cutesy
chime of the musical clock above the doorway of the building with Disney-like characters
carrying a portable shrine to traditional Japanese musi - -though "It's a Small
World" seemed more appropriate.
Crossing the street to Kaminarimon Gate, Sato points out the protectors of the Temple:
Fujin, the God of Wind and Raijin, God of Thunder. Unfortunately, the protectors are in
turn protected by mesh fencing so it's hard to get a good look at them.
Next we're off to explore the 86 shops that line Nakamise-dori. If you're looking for
gifts to take back home for Christmas or some Ningyo-yaki (doll-shaped cakes
filled with bean paste) to win over your boss or co-workers, then this is the place. As omiyage
central, the street is packed with every Japanese souvenir from the tasteless to the
exquisite: yukata, rice crackers, dolls, jewelry, lamps-even rubber masks of Prime
Minister Mori are on offer. If you turn left at the end of the street you'll also find a
shop specializing in Edo kiriko (traditionally cut and colored glassware) and
another store where tsuge (beautifully hand-carved hair combs and pieces) are
Ask and ye shall
Following our little detour,
we're back on the sightseeing track, passing through Hozomon or "Treasure" Gate
where rare 14th century Chinese sutras are stored. Two gargantuan straw "socks"
(that look more like slippers) hang from the inside of the gate to ward off evil spirits.
Seeing the 500kg socks will give evil spirits the impression that a giant inhabits the
temple, causing them to flee in fear.
Before climbing the stairs of the temple make sure to make a pit stop at the incense
burner and douse yourself in a good deal of smoke to ward off illness and bring good luck.
If you're trying to pass an exam, for example, wave the smoke on your head to increase
brainpower or splash your face with it to protect yourself from wrinkles. Your guide will
then lead you to the well area, where he'll show you how to drink and wash with holy
water, so that you're finally presentable to the gods. Once spic and span, you're ready to
climb the steps of the temple, throw your JY5 in the basin and pray (you'll be taught the
On your way out, don't forget to try your luck at the fortune counter. Pay JY100, shake
the cylinder and extract a stick. Match the number on the stick with the corresponding
drawer. If your fortune is good, pocket the message for future inspiration. If you come
out unlucky, fear not. Merely tie the cursed paper onto the line board provided and you
instantly negate the negative prediction!
Just around the corner from the grandiose temple is the more humble Asakusa Jinja, where
the souls of the two fisherman and village leader who founded the Kannon Temple are
enshrined. If you have a strong wish that needs fulfilling, you can purchase a wooden
placard, write your message on it and leave it for the spirits to peruse. Fear not, there
are no language restrictions as the gods are multi-lingual. Any request (within reason)
can be made; some worshippers asked for world peace, while one young boy prayed to be a
good enough at baseball to make it to the Major Leagues.
The roads less traveled
Once the tour finishes, get off the beaten track and explore the more local back streets
to the west of Nakamise-dori. The pace is decidedly slower here. Turn a corner and you're
sure to discover a pack of old men checking horse-race results or a group of locals
chatting about current events over a bottle of beer and a bowl of oden. It's here where
the real heart of the old town continues to exist in the tiny shops and restaurants that
sprawl out onto the narrow roads, a place where bicycles rule, and where there's nary a
Starbucks or tourist in sight. This is the Tokyo of yesteryear, the Tokyo that has all but
The free tour
of Asakusa leaves the Asakusa Information Center (across the street from Kaminarimon Gate)
on Sundays at 1:30pm and 3pm and takes approximately 1 hour.