After spending the majority my first afternoon in Tokyo face down in the pillow of my bed at Khaosan World, I awoke early the following morning for full day of sightseeing in order to make up for lost time. As my hostel was located in Asakusa area of the city, I decided to ditch my Manaca Card for the day and explore the area on foot, despite the weather not really being in my favour.
My first point of call was procuring breakfast, as my accidental 16 hour nap had left me feeling somewhat ravenous and craving something special for my first Japanese meal. On my way to my first ‘tourist spot’ of the day, I came across Kohikan, a coffee cafe located about midway along one of the area’s main shopping streets. I was initially drawn in by freakishly realistic wax pancakes on the window, and when the cashier greeted me in English as I tentatively poked my head around the door, I knew it was going to be a match made in heaven. For ¥840 (about £5,), I treated myself to a warm Japanese hotcake, served with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, and an iced glass of their speciality bitter, charcoal-roasted coffee; just what I needed to warm me up, forget about the weather and prepare me for my next stop; Sensō-ji.
Asakusa is the center of Tokyo’s shitamachi, or “low city”, where some of the atmosphere of Tokyo’s traditions have transcended both the war and modern redevelopment, away from the rest of the city’s characteristic bright lights and high-technology. Further down from Kohikan and its hotcake-goodness lies Kaminarimon, the first of two large entrance gates leading to the famous Sensō-ji Temple. Literally translated as “Thunder Gate”, Kaminarimon features an unusually large chōchin red paper lantern which is arguably the most famous in all of Japan, which bears the gate’s name in Japanese; 雷門. The pillars of the gate are home to four statues, with those of Fūjin and Raijin at the front, the gods of wind and thunder, and Tenryū and Kinryū at the back. Japan’s history, much like that of recent times has been filled with typhoons, storms, earthquakes and tsunamis, all of which have wiped out communities across the islands, and as such Fūjin and Raijin are fiercely feared and respected for their command over nature.
Passing through the gate, you enter into Nakamise-Dori, a shopping street that stretches about 250 meters from Kaminarimon to the main grounds of Sensō-ji Temple. With more than 50 different shops and stalls, the street has been providing visitors to the temple with a variety of traditional snacks and tourist goods for centuries, and many now say it is one of the best places in all of Tokyo to buy souvenirs. Ultimately, that makes everything a little more expensive, but the vendors are friendly and it’s quite enjoyable to look around each stall. The street is also a great place to sample Ningyoyaki, local handmade cakes with a red bean paste filling, as well as watch their production. I’ve discovered on many occasions that red bean paste is just not my thing and these were no exception, but even I have to admit that fresh out of the oven these little cake puffs were actually pretty tasty. I soon learned thatNakamise-Dori gets pretty busy, even in the morning and when it’s raining, which made it somewhat difficult to navigate when everyone had their umbrellas up!
The end of Nakamise-Dori is marked by another gate; the Hōzōmon, or the ‘Treasure Keeping’ gate. Adorned with three lanterns, the largest is another chōchin that hangs under the center of the gate’s opening and the other two are huge copper tōrō to either side. On the front-facing sides of the gate are two identical statues of Niō, the guardian deity of the Buddha, and on the back sit two ginormous waraji, or straw sandals, that each weigh a whopping 400 kg, and are 4.5 m long! It also houses treasures from the temple, although viewings are not readily available to the public.
Upon passing through this second gate, there are still a few more obstacles to pass before reaching the main event, although they are some of the most entertaining. The first of these distractions are the semi-obligatory o-mikuji fortune telling stations. Here, you pop a ¥100 coin into a box, retrieve a hexagonal metal canister, think positive thoughts and shake until a bamboo stick pops out. Traditionally, your o-mikuji would be given to you by the priest or miko, but here you find which number drawer your stick corresponds to and retrieve the paper yourself. For me, my first attempt wasn’t so lucky, so custom told me to to fold the strip of paper nice and thin and tie it to a nearby rack of metal wires, in order for said prophesy not to follow me home. My fortune looked kind of lonely and I wondered if it was just me that had been struck by bad luck, but I quickly realised that it was barely past 9am and knew it wouldn’t be alone for much longer…phew!
Your final stop before reaching the temple is the cleansing areas, the first of which is a large incense burner in front of the main hall of the temple. It’s customary to wave the smoke from the burning incense towards you to purify yourself, and you can purchase your own incense if you fancy contributing to the basin. If, like me, you’re travelling on a budget, it’s perfectly fine to waft everyone elses over your head for free. Next, you pass onto the fountain, where it’s customary to lightly cleanse your hands and the area around your mouth with the water. There’s an exact science to the order in which you’re meant to do things, but from what I could gather it’s left hand, right hand, mouth, ladle, relax. You’re not supposed to drink it, presumably because it’s full of hand wash germs, but I did see a few people doing it (eww, gross, etc).
Finally you’re there, Asakusa’s main attraction; Sensō-ji. Built in the 7th century and devoted to Kannon, it was destroyed in the war and rebuilt soon afterwards. It’s certainly amazing to think that when the temple was founded in 628, Tokyo was little more than a small fishing village! Within the precinct stands a beautiful five-story pagoda, the main hall and various other temples, shrines and gardens, most of which are open to the public throughout the year. You are free to walk around inside the main hall of Sensō-ji without taking off your shoes. In here I tried my luck once more at the o-mikuji, focusing all my energy into finding a positive drawer with only limited success. I’ll take waiting for love and lost items to return over all my servants ditching me in a hurry though, right?
The further from the main temple you go, the more hidden gems you can find. I decided to take the scenic route through the back of the complex to avoid the crowds on my way home, and was pleasantly surprised by how many hidden shrines I found that were completely devoid of people. I was free to take photographs, reflect on my surroundings and even stay out of the rain without fear of being jabbed in the eye by the umbrella of a Chinese tourist. My favourite spots were the koi ponds and the gardens directly behind the main Sensō-ji temple, as well as the tiny little shrine in the far left corner, hidden behind a series of bright red and white flags, which seemed to be a popular spot for local people to come and pray in peace, before heading out to work.
My truly favourite spot of the day however had to have been the one that I stumbled across last. As I was getting ready to leave, I spotted a plum blossom tree, and as I hurried over to get a quick snap, I realised how perfectly aligned it was with the pagoda behind. As the rain had started to get a little heavier, many of the tourists had decided to seek shelter elsewhere so I was completely alone, and managed to get the perfect Japan postcard shot to send to my friends and family back home! I’d call that a pretty successful morning, wouldn’t you? Well, as long as my first fortune didn’t follow me home that is!