Asakusa amble

An Asakusa pagoda
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.

Wet Worship
Wet worship

"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 popularity.

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).

Traditional trek
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 sold.

Ask and ye shall receive

Ask and ye shall receive

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 various customs).

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 disappeared.

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.

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342: Asakusa amble
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307: Travelling with Pets
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305: Frequent Flying
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290: Travelling with Kids
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286: Hostel takeovers
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277: Travel Photography
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