Both times that we have been to Japan so far, we have split our bases between Kyoto and Tokyo. When we were planning our honeymoon, we decided that we wanted to experience the “old” Tokyo, so we booked a few nights in a business hotel in Asakusa. We enjoyed our time there so much that, the second time we went back, we stayed a whole week – this time in a Ryokan: the Toukaisou. Here we slept in a tatami room on futon. The pillows were a little hard, but the futon were more comfortable than any hotel bed!
Asakusa was an entertainment district in both the Edo period and after the Meiji restoration. It was mostly known for its kabuki theatres and for having the first cinema in Japan. The importance of Asakusa’s kabuki past is remembered in a statue of the Meiji period kabuki actor, Ichikawa Danjuro (市川 団十郎). He kept kabuki going during the Meiji period, when Japan was moving away from its traditional past and embracing the modern world.
The statue stands in the grounds behind the Buddhist temple, Sensoji (浅草寺). The area’s theatrical past is also commemorated in an osaisen-bako, or collection box, in the form of a stage with actors from the nearby comedy theatre in various poses.
The first time we stayed in Asakusa coincided with the shinto festival, Sanja Matsuri (三社祭). We hadn’t planned this, and as we set out to explore the area for the first evening of our stay, we became embroiled in a throbbing, weaving, compact and bewildering parade through the narrow alleyways of the Nakamise market area in front of Sensoji. Groups of men in colour-coordinated happi coats were carrying small shrines on their shoulders through the town. The action continued day and night for three days. Over the weekend we were there, we saw shrines parked by the side of the street at various hours of the day, while the shrine carriers refreshed themselves at local izakaya. Once we had worked out what was going on, it was a thrilling spectacle, and a great thing to be in the middle of.
As part of the same festival, we saw street performers, experienced street food, and were accosted on the street by a bunch of Japanese men who demanded to know who we were, where we had come from, and why we had come to Asakusa.
Even the stalls on Nakamise market entered into the spirit of the matsuri. One stall we saw was selling outfits for dogs that included a happi coat and a kimono.
The main draw of Asakusa is the Sensoji temple, which is stunning, especially at night.
Around and about the temple are winding streets and shops selling all kinds of goods. Near to the old amusement park, Hanayashiki (花やしき), we found various tableaux with cut-out faces, one of which enabled us to relive the Sanja Matsuri.
The Nakamise market street that leads up to the Sensoji temple is also worth a visit. The stalls range from traditional foods, through souvenirs, clothing and toys. One stall was selling hair ornaments for neo-oiran, or prostitutes. Interesting!
The Asahi Brewery is also nearby, on the other side of the Sumida river, and the second time we were in Asakusa, we saw the still-under-construction Sky Tree making its way up into the atmosphere above Tokyo.
Around the corner from our ryokan, the second time we were there, was a 24 hour sushi restaurant, Sushi Ichiban. Despite my husband and I both being vegetarian, we found enough non-fish sushi to satisfy our late-night craving one evening after wandering around the town.
One of my favourite memories of our second stay in Asakusa was coming across a lady playing the koto in the street outside a restaurant. She was graceful and the music was beautiful.