TOKYO, May 29 — Mention Asakusa and most visitors to Tokyo will rhapsodise about the gates and giant lanterns of Senso-ji Temple, emblematic of the capital city for them. Yet few know Asakusa has other facets beyond this: from its cuisine — Asakusa is renowned for its unagi (eel) and shoyu ramen — to its more contemporary aspects such as world-record-breaking towers and Third Wave coffee bars.
A day in Asakusa is a walk down Tokyo’s memory lane but also a peek into its ambitious surge towards the future.
Of course, you should still begin where it all started: Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple in the heart of Asakusa. Also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, Senso-ji was built in 645 A.D. and is Tokyo’s oldest temple. To approach the temple, you first enter through the Kaminarimon (or “Thunder Gate”). This is not only the outer gate of Senso-ji Temple; it’s considered the symbol of Asakusa and the entire city of Tokyo.
After passing the first gate (and the giant red lantern that hangs above), you will enter Nakamise-Dori, a shopping street of over 200 metres and a history of several centuries, which will take you to the temple’s inner gate, the Hozomon (“Treasure-House Gate”).
Come early enough in the morning and you’ll be able to enjoy an unparalleled view of the main temple from the Kaminarimon through the length of Nakamise-Dori to the Hozomon before the busloads of tourists arrive. Or the breakfast crowds, for that matter.
For a quick bite rather than a sit-down breakfast, look for two side-by-side shops in an alley next to Nakamise-Dori. Asakusa Menchi and Toyofuku both offer hot snacks-to-go. Note that while the Japanese frown upon eating and drinking while walking, eating while standing up (or tachigui) is perfectly acceptable.
The shop on the left, Asakusa Menchi, sells menchi-katsu or minced pork cutlet buns. Be careful as you bite into the bun as hot juices may gush out; the bun is generously stuffed with flavourful Kanagawa Kouza pork. The natural taste of the meat is truly good enough on its own though many can’t resist squirting some “Japanese mustard” — in Tokyo, do as the Tokyoites do, after all.
Its neighbour, Toyofuku, is famed for its kare pan (Japanese curry bun). High quality beef from around Japan — the type and origin changes according to the season and supply — is stewed in a typically sweet-rather-than-spicy Japanese curry before being encased in bread dough that is fried till crispy. Possibly the best way to enjoy Japanese curry!
There are also many stalls along the main Nakamise-Dori stretch offering Japanese snacks such as osenbei (Japanese rice crackers), age-manju (deep-fried dumplings filled with red bean paste) and imo-kin (sweet potato cakes) — so you needn’t worry about ever going hungry in Asakusa.
Beyond the Hozomon is Senso-ji Temple’s Main Hall, dedicated to Kannon, the Japanese-Buddhist goddess of mercy. There is also the Five-storied Pagoda and the Asakusa Shrine; the latter was built in the year 1649 by Tokugawa Iemitsu and is where the temple’s three founders are enshrined.
For a quick lunch without leaving the Senso-ji area (for there is still so much to see and explore), a good choice would be Yoroiya, a ramen-ya (noodle shop) not far from the Hozomon Gate. Asakusa is the perfect place to enjoy some ramen as this is the birthplace of shoyu ramen (noodles in soy sauce flavoured broth).
Yoroiya is an ideal introduction to shoyu ramen as the noodles and broth are made the way they used to be made in Asakusa in the 1960s. Yoroiya’s soup stock starts with a base of pork and chicken; konbu (kelp), dried bonito flakes and dried sardines are added for maximum umami flavours.
The tare (seasoning) is shoyu (soy sauce), naturally. Medium-width, curly noodles are used so more of the unctuous broth can stick to every strand. Yoroiya is also famous for using double-yolk eggs for their ajitama (seasoned soft boiled eggs), making the bowl immediately Instagram-mable.
Yet what lifts their shoyu ramen above the rest is the invisible use of yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit). The noodles and soup may look heavy, but the yuzu imparts a refreshing note that makes it easy to slurp the bowl clean.
There always seems to be yet another shop along Nakamise-Dori that you have yet to explore. Not just food; there are plenty of souvenirs, both traditional and tacky. Want an elegant folding fan? They have it here. Fancy dressing up in a yukata (a casual summer kimono)? They probably have one in your size.
If you are weary of retail therapy, why not head over to the “wall of fortunes” next to the main temple? If you receive a fortune (omikuji) that is less than stellar, you can always tie up the piece of paper on the rack, thereby wishing your “bad luck” away.
Asakusa is also a great place to experience matsuri (local festivals, usually organised by temples or shrines), if you happen to be around at the right time. Possibly the grandest of these festivals is the Sanja Matsuri, the annual festival of the Asakusa Shrine, held during the third weekend of May. Expect a lively atmosphere filled with street revellers and hundreds of mikoshi (portable shrines) being paraded.
For a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, head over to Unlimited Coffee Bar in Sumida, a 15-minute walk from Senso-ji. Founded by World Barista Championship judge Daichi Matsubara and roaster Rena Hirai last year, this café is a lovely change from the kissaten (Japanese-style coffee shops) that can be a tad cold and forbidding to newcomers.
Warm in both its décor (plenty of dark woods) and the friendly and professional baristas, Unlimited Coffee Bar offers both espresso coffee, filter coffee and cold brews. For something unusual, try the Espresso Martini, a caffeinated cocktail that even James Bond would approve of, since it’s shaken, not stirred.
From the café, it’s easy to spot the Tokyo Skytree, a new television broadcasting tower that has become a landmark of Tokyo. At 634 metres, it is the tallest building in Japan. There is a special meaning behind its specific height: the number 634 can be read as “Musashi”, which is the historical name of the Tokyo region.
For more of history, saunter over to the 200-year-old Unagi Komagata Maekawa Honten that overlooks the Sumida River (offering yet another view of the Tokyo Skytree). The restaurant began life as a fresh fish wholesaler during the Bunsei Period (1818 – 1830); its name means “front of the river”, a nod to its idyllic riverfront locale.
The moment you enter Maekawa, waitresses in traditional kimonos will bring you to your table (these are also of the traditional variety, with tatami mat seating). Here, Bando-taro eels from the Tone-gawa river are used as these are superior to the farmed variety in terms of flavour.
Don’t miss the house specialty of unaju — grilled fillets of eel that are lightly basted with sweet sauce and served with rice. Maekawa’s unagi tamago — eel rolled in tender layers of egg — is impeccable.
Every bite is a taste of the past as the centuries-old method of grilling the eel over fire and turning sixteen times till caramelised is maintained.
When it gets dark, take a stroll back to Senso-ji for the night illumination. The evening light-up began in October 2003 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Edo Shogunate. The area looks familiar yet beguilingly different with their heavenly glow amidst the darkness.
All of Senso-ji’s main structures — the Main Hall, the Five-storied Pagoda, the Hozomon Gate and the Kaminarimon Gate — are lit up. The lighting design by Motoko Ishii, one of Japan’s leading lighting designers, not only highlights the vermilion colour of the buildings but is also energy conserving.
Indeed, what better metaphor for Asakusa’s (and by extension, Japan’s) journey into the 21st century while keeping all of its history and heritage alive?
2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily: Main hall 6am-7pm April-September & 6.30am-7pm October-March; temple grounds always open
2-3-3 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily 10am-7pm
2-3-4 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily 10am-7pm
1-36-7, Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily 11am-8.30pm
Unlimited Coffee Bar
1-18-2 Narihira, Sumida, Tokyo, Japan
Open Tues-Fri 11am-12am; Sat 9am-12am; Sun 9am-10pm; Mon closed
Unagi Komagata Maekawa Honten
2-1-29 Komagata, Taito-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily 11.30am-9pm
Senso-ji Temple Night Illumination
Daily from sunset to 11pm