DO YOU WANT TO SPOT A GEISHA, EAT CURRIED WHALE MEAT AND RICE, BUY A SAMURAI SWORD? Asakusa is the place. Crowded on to the bank of the Sumida River (隅田川) in Tokyo's northern suburbs, Asakusa is one remnant of the old "down-town" (Shitamachi) area of Edo fame. (Eds. note: the name Shitamachi is somewhat confusing: it does not mean "down-town" in the Manhattan sense, but rather refers to the lowlands upon which this city is built. These days, "down-market" might be more apt a term...)

It is a town that seems to have had better days, but is fascinating nonetheless. During the middle of the 20th Century, Asakusa was one of the most famous entertainment quarters in all of Japan. The working class, Shitamachi element still shows in the sometimes dilapidated housing styles and homeless tents on the river. There are also lots of temples, the foremost of which is Sensoji Temple, built in 645AD. The temple was built in honor of the Goddess Kannon, from which the Japanese company Canon got its name, believe it or not...

It might just be one square kilometer in the Old City, but it is sure jam-packed. During the day, shops sell sembei crackers, agemanju (Asakusa's signature snack), green tea powder, and various substances derived from this powder. On cold weekend nights, chairs spill on to the pavement, beer is served to ruddy-faced huddles, and yakitori cooked over steaming braziers. Often it is enough just to stroll the streets, some of which are covered. Artisans sit inside their tiny premises, tinkering away.. From time to time, a rickshaw might squeeze past, or a crowd of locals carrying a mikoshi. There are often vivid festivals held here, especially in summer. When I first arrived in Asakusa, there was a festival being held up the road (the Tori no Ichi Fair), absolutely crammed with people. Strange fanlike shape, adorned with fake leaves and flowers, kanji scrolls.. One man held a cat aloft. I thought to myself: This is so weird.

Amongst the modern structures, traditional homes survive to this day. Tiled walls, microbalconies. A vending machine on every street corner. In Kappabashi, there are whole stores devoted to pots and pans, lanterns and noren. You can buy plastic models of Japanese meals, like tempura and sushi.


Things to See: Asahi Beer Museum
Honzan Higashihongan-ji Temple
Things to Buy: Omiyage
Eat in Asakusa: Restaurants & Street Stalls
Drink in Asakusa: Bars & Cafes
Stay in Asakusa: Hotels & Guesthouses
Excursions from Asakusa: Akihabara
River Cruises
Sumo District: Ryogoku
Yoshiwara (Red Light District)

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