Asakusa is in the Northeastern part of Tokyo. While it was once the city’s trendiest entertainment district, it has since become a popular shopping area. It’s an especially good place to find all manner of souvenirs and features a variety of excellent restaurants and snack stands, all of which are set in a series of shopping arcades which lead up to one of Tokyo’s most famous temples.
The easiest way to reach Asakusa is on the Asakusa or Ginza subway lines, both of which pass through many major stations throughout the city.
What to See
The main things to see in Asakusa are shopping arcades and the temple complex, though there are a few other points of interest as well.
Asakusa Shopping Arcades
Shopping arcades are open-air shopping streets with a roof overhead (allowing the stores to operate normally regardless of the weather). If you leave Asakusa station by one of the main exits, you’ll end up right across the street from the entrance to the main shopping arcade. Just head down the covered street and you’ll find yourself amidst a diverse mix of restaurants, clothing stores, and the like, along with some shops focusing on more traditional Japanese items such as paper fans and kimono.
There are several different branches to follow, with the arcade eventually dead ending into a narrow shopping street lined with snack stands and colorful stalls selling a wide variety of Japanese souvenirs, from the tacky to the exquisite.
If you won’t get the chance to travel to towns that specialize in traditional Japanese crafts (such as wood carving, lacquer, weaving, etc), you can still find a surprisingly good selection of those items here. This is also a great place to just walk around and sample the different Japanese snacks and sweets that are available. My personal favorite is the chestnut taiyaki (fish shaped pastries) available from a tiny store in the main shopping arcade.
If you follow the souvenir shop lined street to the left, you’ll reach the famous Kamennari Gate while if you got right you’ll come to Asakusajinja Shrine and Sensoji Temple. If you still haven’t had enough shopping, there are some interesting stores a little off the beaten path which you can reach by approaching the temple complex then turning down the road leading to your left. If you think you can manage to eventually find your way back to the subway station, it’s fun to just wander around and see what you can find. All in all, depending on your interests, exploring the shopping arcades in Asakusa can occupy anywhere from a couple hours to the better part of a day.
Asakusajinja Shrine & Sensoji Temple
As described in the previous section, the temple complex sits at the end of the busy shopping street which starts at Kamennari Gate. The large gates, pagoda, and throngs of people heading to and from the temple make it impossible to miss once you reach the general area. Though it’s far from the grandest shrine or temple complex to be found in Japan, the main temple still an impressive structure as is the large pagoda nearby (even though it’s only a replica of the original) and there are numerous smaller buildings and statues scattered around the area. This is a good place to spot women wearing traditional Japanese kimono coming to pray, especially around New Year’s, though be warned that the crowds on the first few days of January tend to make the entire area nearly impassable. Assuming you visit at a more reasonable time of year, expect to spend 15 – 30 minutes looking around the complex.
Other Things to See
Back at the subway station, if you turn and walk around and behind the station (instead of crossing the street to the shopping arcade) you’ll quickly come to bridge from which you can see the Asahi Beer brewery (the building with the golden swish thing on top) and the new Tokyo Sky Tree (the circular tower which will be the country’s tallest building one it’s completed in 2012). There’s also a dock right by the bridge where you can catch a sightseeing boat to Odaiba. Finally, if you’re really fond of the plastic food found in the window displays of many Japanese restaurants, you can get some of your own at the stores on Kappabashi Dogugai Street (a ten or fifteen minute walk to the Northwest; a map is recommended).
Asakusa is a great place to shop for souvenirs, try out a wide variety of Japanese snacks, and see one of Tokyo’s best temple complexes. As such, I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Tokyo, especially those who won’t get the chance to visit the temples and shopping streets in places like Nikko and Kyoto.