The grand temple of Senso-ji looms large in the heart of Tokyo’s downtown.
Asakusa is where you’ll find the Tokyo of old; from the 7th century golden image of Kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy) enshrined in Senso-ji temple’s main hall to the faded postwar pachinko parlors of the adjacent Rokku entertainment district, it’s all one captivating time-warp.
The area around Senso-ji is never not crowded with tourists but the busy atmosphere recalls the days when Asakusa was Tokyo’s leading pleasure-district.
Walking around the warren of dusty covered arcades just outside the temple grounds, you get a sense of how much fun it must have been – and if you look close enough, how much it still is.
Coming into Asakusa, it’s hard to miss Senso-ji and the towering Kaminarimon or Thunder gate, the first of two entrance gates to the temple. A giant red lantern hangs in the middle of the gate at head height, leading onto Nakamise-dori, a vibrant shopping street selling everything from souvenirs to Edo-period crafts, as well as traditional street food like senbei (rice crackers) and manju (steamed sweet buns).
Follow the street all the way along to reach the temple. There’s a wide square leading to the main hall, with wooden booths around the sides where you can draw your fortune. Pay 100 yen and pick up the hexagonal metal box, shaking it until a wooden stick falls out of the small hole on the top. The stick will have a number at the end of it, which corresponds to a number on a drawer at the booth. Open up the drawer and there will be a small A5 paper with your fortune inside (with some English translation). If you get a bad fortune, you can fold and tie your paper to a stand of metal wires to make it go away, though of course it’s too late by that point.
Head up the stairs past the cauldron of incense to the main hall to throw a lucky coin in the box, and bow and clap in front of the shrine. Turn left back downstairs and exit the temple complex towards the Rokku entertainment district to try your luck in Asakusa’s non-religious establishments.
Here rows of tarp-covered izakaya become packed with people sitting on low stools around plastic tables, enjoying typical beer-drinking accompaniments such as “yakitori” (grilled chicken skewers) and “gyusuji nikomi” (beef tendon stew). It’s a great place to meet, drink and be merry Japanese-style and you’re guaranteed to make friends.
Asakusa is also a popular boarding point for a boat cruise along the Sumida river which flows through Tokyo. Different routes are available, though the most popular is the Asakusa-Odaiba direct line where you can ride in a futuristic glass boat to the artificial island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay.