Asakusa is the most fun you can have in an afternoon…

Enter here for the best time you'll ever have at a spiritual sanctuary

When I went to Japan the first time in August, I very stupidly put visiting Asakusa prefecture off until the Saturday before I left- and lo and behold, that was also the day of the Carnival, a truly MASSIVE parade and celebration that was probably insanely fun for the people lucky enough to be in the first three rows after the barricades, but not so much fun for the rest of us who could neither see nor breathe for the entire length of the route. 

 Asakusa is known for being part of the shitamachi, low-city area or “downtown” part of Tokyo, and has a much older feel than the other parts of Tokyo I saw. There are tons of stores selling traditional items like drums and yukata, and there seemed to be an awful lot of people selling sweets, too. Also, lots of senbei, rice crackers seasoned with soy sauce and sometimes things like toasted seaweed, sugar crystals, or sesame seeds. They are ultra crispy, and pretty damned satisfying for crackers, and there are enough varieties out there so that everyone will love at least one of them. You can get senbei in any Asian grocery store over here, of course, so this is old news to most, but apparently there are higher grades to be found in Japan, including hand hammered, so it’s very much worth it to buy some higher quality. I decided to pick some up after reading Maki’s excellent 100 Japanese foods you must try” on Just Hungry, the blog that sparked my interest in Japan and still one of my very favorites. Print it out, because you’ll refer back to it often.

Anyway, enough about crackers: my point is that I saw all of these shops, and I saw Kaminarimon, the gate that opens up and leads you to Sensōji , but I couldn’t get anywhere near any of it,  because I was moving in crowd with no particular destination and no real ability to see three people in front of me. The carnival sounded like a blast, but it was over 90 degrees out, I had no map, and I was starting to panic. I somehow made my way to the edges of the group and dipped down a side street away from the parade route, where I bought an icy beer at a convenience store and walked to the Azumabashi Bridge to quench my thirst before going home.

The famous Asahi building, majestic gold poo heralding all to come and make merry

Someone in Asakusa loves cats, yay. This was probably the only litter I saw all day.

This time around, I was seeing Kannon’s temple no matter what.

I feel like it’s a bit of a waste telling you how to find Senso-ji—just get off the train and you can’t miss it. After passing through Kaminarimon, you end up on a street that very much resembles a street fair, except it’s like this every day. This is Nakamise-dori (if you click on this link, you’ll be connected to not only a great entry on Asakusa, but a great Japan blog in general), and even though it’s a tourist trap, it’s one of the best and most amazing tourist traps you’ll ever see. You can buy pretty much all of your standard Japan souvenirs here–lucky cats, hello kitty, keychains, getas–but you can also buy SNACKS. Awesome, amazing, glorious snacks!! It was paradise for me with my sweet tooth. I ate so much that you could practically roll me to the temple afterward.

These were fried sweet dumplings with kabocha squash (basically pumpkin) inside. Sold by the grumpiest old woman I have seen yet in Tokyo, but they were soft and warm and so sweet and amazing that I briefly considered buying a Doraemon mask at a nearby stall so I could go back up and buy seconds and thirds.

These were mini- dango, little tiny balls of mochi, in a bag with lots of kinako powder to coat. You can’t really walk around with food there, they want you to eat it at the stall, so I stood in the chilly January afternoon with 5 other people drinking sweet hot sake out of a paper cup and trying not to spill kinako powder all over my clothes. I failed, of course, but it was worth it. What an awesome idea–the sake warmed you from the inside and tasted like liquid candy.

I am kind of obsessed with dango/mochi, I know. I know they are like 350 calories each, but I’ll take the chubb.

Once you walk through the vendors, you arrive at Hōzōmon, another gate guarding the temple, complete with a very large mural of a dragon and two massive guardian gods on either side. Both of them were gated and huge, so I apologize for the crappy photo, but they look something like this:

After you pass through that gate, you are at the entrance to the main hall. You’ll see people from the shrine selling fortunes and talismans, and you’ll also see them selling incense, which you use to purify yourself before you go in.  Stick your incense n the communal sand pit, and waft the smoke around your face and hands before going in. Just watch what other people are doing, and you should be fine.

 

The main temple is beautiful, as expected and as fitting for the Bodhisattva of Compassion (which is why I wanted to visit in the first place, as I wanted her to watch over my animals), but be sure to visit the numerous other shrines around the gate, which house other Bodhisattvas and deities. Also visit the gardens near the home of the head priest, because they are stunning. This is all literally steps away, so it’s not like you have to go out of your way or anything. When you leave Senso-ji, you can do as I did and wander around Asakusa’s side streets and many restaurant until you get tired and use the Asahi building and its gigantic “golden poo” to find your way back to the river, r you can go to Hanayashiki Amusement Park for some scary ass wooden roller coasters, or you can do as I plan to next time and find Kappabashidori, a long street dedicated to restaurant equipment. Sounds boring, I know, but if you have any budding chefs you need to buy presents for, you can find all kinds of gorgeous soup bowls and chopsticks and bento supplies.

Asakusa was a huge amount of fun, really, and I’d go back in a second. It’s an older part of the city, but it feels very alive and exciting. It’s touristy, but in a way that makes you smile, because people there are making a good living selling decently priced trinkets (as opposed to NY where tourists pay the equivalent of 3 college credits to go to a Broadway show and buy T shirts)  and showing off a gorgeous temple they are rightfully proud of. I didn’t see one vendor there, aside from the grumpy dl lady, who looked pissed off or angry at all the visitors there. And, if you still aren’t convinced, those pumpkin things alone are worth the subway fare.

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