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
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.
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