An Afternoon in Asakusa

Predictably, my rate of blogging has decreased considerably from the start of the year—I’ve gone from 5 posts per week to barely being able to muster up the time and energy to meet my Post A Week commitment. :) But such is the nature of life! Some friends have recently arrived in Tokyo, so in addition to working, I’ve been accompanying them on a few excursions to some of the popular tourist destinations. Last week, we spent a leisurely afternoon strolling around Asakusa, home of Senso-ji. Originally built in the 7th century, it is one of Tokyo’s oldest, most famous, and most popular temples, although all of the current building are post-World War II reconstructions. The temple is dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon, According to legend, a statue of Kannon was found in the Sumida River in 628 by two fishermen, which led to the construction of the temple in 645. Senso-ji benefited from the support of the shogunate during the Kamakura period, and it further flourished during the Edo period after Tokugawa Ieyasu selected Senso-ji as the tutelary temple of the Tokugawa clan. Senso-ji currently draws about 30 million visitors every year (and it’s free!).

For all of this rich history, however, a visit to Senso-ji tends to be quick and easy and rarely something that gets its own blog post. I must have been to this temple at least 10 times over the last 6 years, so I thought I would take this opportunity to take you on a little virtual stroll through the temple grounds, blending together a number of photographs I’ve taken over the years.

As you approach Senso-ji, the first structure you come to is Kaminarimon (Kaminari Gate, or Thunder Gate), the first of two large entrance gates leading up to the main temple. Its first incarnation was built more than 1,000 years ago.

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After you pass through Kaminarimon, you come to the Nakamise shopping arcade, a strip of small shops and food stalls which stretches in front of you for about 250 meters. The promenade is either covered or open air, depending on the time of year. If you’re visiting Tokyo for only a short period of time and need to quickly stock up on souvenirs for friends back home, this is an excellent place to look, since they have just about everything. The wares range from the authentic to the truly cheesy, but you can pick out some gems if you have a discerning eye. As you wander up the street, you also have the opportunity to try a number of traditional snacks.

As you emerge from Nakamise, you see Hozomon (Treasure House Gate), which is larger and more ornate than Kaminarimon. According to MyWiseWife.com, Hozomon was initially built in 942, burned down, and was rebuilt by Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1649. This time, it stood for more than 300 years before being destroyed again in the fire bombing of Tokyo during World War II. The current gate, built in 1964, is constructed in the style of the early Edo Period. It is about 21.7 meters high, 21.1 meters wide, and 8.2 meters deep.

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After this gate, you enter another courtyard where you can purchase charms or fortunes or incense, which you can see in the very first picture of this post. Then, at last you reach the main building of the temple, which actually just finished a major renovation in December 2010. This is an old photo of it from back in 2006:

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As you climb the steps to enter the temple, the light grows much more dim. At the top, there’s an area where many people toss money and then offer their prayers or wishes. It can be particularly crowded at the start of the new year. The innermost section of the main temple building is restricted to temple staff and to pre-arranged events. There are a number of ornate religious objects inside, which I know absolutely nothing about, unfortunately:

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Here’s a view from the inside of the temple looking back out at the courtyard:

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If you take the time to stroll around the grounds, you often see a number of food stalls for one festival or another. Sanja Matsuri is the temple’s biggest event of the year (and one of Tokyo’s three biggest festivals more generally); about 2 million people visit Asakusa over the three days of Sanja Matsuri. The grounds are also littered with all kinds of interesting statues and smaller buildings. Another architectural highlight is the five-story pagoda, which sits just to the left of Hozomon:

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Anyway,  although this entry is way too long, I assure you that it’s no substitute for seeing it yourself–if you have an hour to burn in eastern Tokyo, it’s worth a quick look. There’s also lots of tasty tempura to be had in the area. Kappabashi-dori, a street of shops that cater to restaurant operators, is also a short stroll away; you can buy dishes, pots, utensils, stoves, tables, chairs, signs, plastic food models… pretty much anything except food itself.

This my submission to “Show Me Japan”—click on the picture below to see other entries:

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