Tokyo’s Hidden Treasures

Asakusa district offers clients spots of serenity

By: Gary Bowerman

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The Sensoji Buddhist temple,
Asakusa’s most popular attraction.
Tokyo doesn’t claim to be the most beautiful city the architecture isn’t always spectacular; there’s no set-piece harbor setting; and rather than a single central downtown area, it has several. For first-time visitors, Japan’s capital can seem incongruously vast and difficult to navigate, but it is one of the most fascinating, creative and engaging cities. It is also extremely safe; the culture is absorbing; and the welcome is never less than hospitable.

Even a cursory glance at Tokyo’s tourism map reveals a multitude of options, ranging from historic Buddhist and Shinto temples to the boutiques and galleries of Ginza; from the Imperial Palace to the neon dazzle of Shibuya (which enchanted Scarlett Johansson in “Lost in Translation”). Moreover, Tokyo has some fabulous new luxury hotels, with more to open in the next two years. Given the sightseeing choice and Tokyo’s vastness, itinerary planning is crucial many districts merit at least half a day of exploration and travel between each one can be quite time-consuming.

Tokyo in 24 Hours
Having visited Tokyo a handful of times, I still can’t say I know it well and exploring new parts is as exciting as ever. With just 24 hours to spare, I jumped on the Ginza subway line and headed for the northeastern district of Asakusa. Once the entertainment heart of Edo, the 17th-19th century name for Tokyo, this charming labyrinth of low-rise streets is full of galleries, craft sellers, storefronts adorned with animated Japanese artwork and unpretentious neighborhood restaurants and bars.

Asakusa is also a treasure trove of easily accessible and very photogenic tourism sites. A three-minute walk from Asakusa station, I came across Kaminarimon Gate, a beautiful carved wooden entryway to the bustling Nakamise Dori market. Hanging over the entrance is a giant, 1,500-pound red lantern, which has become a favorite photo op for local visitors.

Passing through the gate into the covered market, a myriad of stores sell Japanese specialties, including pastries, rice crackers and candies, as well as handicrafts, footwear and clothing children’s kimonos are a popular gift item.

Part of the fun is actually taking aimless diversions down the different side streets and ending up in wonderfully atmospheric narrow lanes of the shitamachi (old low city). This enchanting district is rich in the ambience of bygone days when Asakusa was Edo’s pre-eminent theatre and red-light district.

Here you’ll also find several small neighborhood bars serving the delicious local beer and dishes. Emerging from one of these friendly hostelries after a couple of lunchtime glasses of beer, I quickly reached for my camera as I spotted two Japanese women perched on a high-wheeled rickshaw pulled by a young guide. They waved as they passed, but my beer-affected reflexes missed the shot. I cursed my camera and my lunchtime digression.

Sites of Worship
Standing high and handsome over the market district is the layered roof of Asakusa’s most popular attraction: the Sensoji Buddhist temple one of Japan’s most revered sites of worship. Despite grey skies and drizzling rain, the courtyard was filled with pilgrims including a young couple dressed in kimonos and wooden slippers lighting incense sticks in a giant urn to take into the temple.

Adjacent to the temple is the soaring 170-foot, five-story pagoda. Beyond this are a series of placid gardens with Buddhist statues and elegant bridges spanning small streams even during a touristy day, the air of serenity was most enjoyable.

From here, I meandered through the backstreets and chanced upon the Hanayashiki amusement park. A far cry from enormous theme parks of today, this is a simple pleasure center with old-fashioned fairground rides and Japan’s oldest rollercoaster.

None of the rides spins, turns or accelerates with undue speed, something the parents seem visually to appreciate at least as much as the children.

I finished my Asakusa visit with a gentle walk through Sumida Park, which hugs the banks of the Sumida River. From here, you can catch a water bus to Odaiba district and the Port of Tokyo (for more information, visit SuijoBus.co.jp.) Though a pleasant walk on any sunny day, Sumida Park is most spectacular in early April when Japan’s famed cherry blossoms create a profusion of color and fragrance. Once a year in late July, the park also hosts Tokyo’s most spectacular fireworks display, drawing around one million people to the surrounding streets for a mass evening picnic.

An Afternoon in Asakusa
If your time is limited, Asakusa makes for a pleasant half-day sightseeing trip. For the afternoon, catch the gold-colored Ginza metro line for the 25-minute ride to Omotesando (station no. 2; all stations are numbered, Asakusa is no. 19).

Ometesando’s uber-cool main street features some of Tokyo’s hippest stores and boutiques, including the unmissable Prada Building and Ometesando Hills luxury mall. For edgier fashions, handicrafts and coffee houses, the adjacent lanes and side streets represent Tokyo cafe culture spiced with a hint of Paris.

The main street winds gently uphill toward Yoyogi park, one of the city’s most pleasant parks, which also affords some of the best shade. It is a particularly attractive and romantic place to seek solace from the fierce midsummer sun.

Here you can also pass through the giant cypress-wood torii gates into Meiji-jingu, Tokyo’s grandest and most-visited shrine that sits sheltered under the park’s impressive canopy. Pass by on a Saturday afternoon and you may be lucky enough to witness a traditional Japanese wedding, a colorful and spiritually powerful occasion.

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