Asakusa is a neighbourhood in the north east of Tokyo city adjacent to the Sumida River. It’s known to visitors for the historic Senso-ji temple and spectacular views from the Tokyo Skytree but lets take a deeper look at things to do in Asakusa.
We’ve been travelling regularly to Japan for quite a few years now and thought it might be useful to take a look at some of the different parts of Tokyo, what the attractions are in each, the foodie highlights and why you might chose to base in the area during your stay in the city.
The thing to keep in mind when working out where to stay in Tokyo is deciding what central means for you and your purposes. Technically the centre of Tokyo is the Imperial Palace, the site of the old Edo castle which is an area called Chiyoda. You’ll find it’s convenient to Tokyo station, Ginza, Akasaka and the business and commercial district. I’ve noticed many people say ‘we stayed centrally in Shinjuku’ for example. Shinjuku is 6 km from the city centre, Asakusa is 4 km but what matters most for visitors is whether it has good access (trains and subways) and whether it’s near attractions that interest you and whether there are good places to eat nearby at the end of the day. It’s almost certain you’ll be moving around the sprawling city using some form of transport, Tokyo is not a city many have time to explore purely on foot without missing out on so much of it’s drama and diversity.
Table of Contents
- A bit about the Asakusa and Sumida area
- Things to do in Asakusa
- How to get to Asakusa
- Where to stay in Asakusa
- A map of Asakusa attractions
A bit about the Asakusa and Sumida area
Asakusa is in the north east of Tokyo city, around 2.5 km east of Ueno and 3.5 km from Tokyo Station. It’s a area where Tokyo’s history survives and you’ll feel this in some of it’s attractions, its many traditional restaurants and that there are more low rise buildings than skyscrappers around here.
Asakusa’s most popular attraction for tourists is Senso-ji temple which dates back to the 7th century and the area around it has been popular since the Edo period when it was known as an entertainment district. A few geisha and tea houses remain in Asakusa but they are not as visible to foreigners as the ones in Kyoto.
Things to do in Asakusa
1. The Kaminarimon
I find the best way to enjoy this part of Asakusa is starting from the outer gate called Kaminarimon which is really close to the Asakusa station exit. You can get here from other parts of the city using the Asakusa or Ginza subway lines and use exits A3~A5.
The Kaminarimon gate was originally built here over 1000 years ago and the current one dates from 1960. It features an enormous paper lantern and there are guardian figures on either side. Facing us here are the Shinto gods of wind and thunder. On the opposite side facing the shopping street are the Buddhist deities, kinryu (golden dragon) and tenryu (heavenly dragon) in their human form.
2. Nakamise Shopping Street
Through the Kaminarimon gate you enter an avenue that leads to the second gate, Senso-ji temple and Asakusa shrine. This walkway is the Nakamise Shopping street and although it’s only around 300 metres between the two gates there’s a lot to see so allow a bit of time to explore this short distance.
In the day it’s generally pretty crowded through here so if you want to experience it without that intensity an early morning or an evening visit might be an option for you. Of course if you are staying in the area then that is a little easier to do but the subways run late into the night and are very safe so a late afternoon and dinner visit can be a good choice too.
3. The street food
One reason I love to walk through Asukusa at any time of day is the food. There are many small and fabulous restaurants but the area is also special for its street food and snacks throughout the Nakamise area which includes 2 other streets that intersect with it, Donboin Dori and Shin-Nakamise Dori. You don’t see a lot of street food in Japan compared to other parts of Asia, probably because eating as you walk around is generally considered rude but there are plenty of places to find a quiet corner and if you go to the right as you enter through the main gate to Senso-ji temple there’s a large seating area and it’s OK to eat and drink there.
The Japanese word for street food is tabearuki it’s literally a contraction of the words for eat and walk, I did find it surprising that there’s a word for it when walking as you eat is not something you really see a Japanese person doing, even at festivals or shopping streets like this it’s uncommon.
Deciding what to try is the main challenge here. Taiyaki is one I can’t go past, it translates as grilled snapper, a type of fish but it’s actually a sweet treat usually made in the shape of a fish using molds similar to the ningyo yaki ones you see in the photo above and cooked over a hot grill. A batter is poured in and topped with your choice of filling, sweetened red bean is the most familiar but custard, matcha and sakura are also popular. Taiyaki are best eaten warm from the grill. Other options include nikuman which are meat buns, hard candy, sweet and savory rice crackers, ice cream and ice cream filled biscuits and the ningyo yaki I mentioned above which are a cake filled with red bean that are often boxed and purchased as a souvenir gift.
4. Senso-ji Temple
Next you came to the Hozomon gate at the entrance to the Senso-ji temple courtyard. This gate is even larger and more dramatic than the first one. You can see above how it dwarfs the crowd as they walk beneath it.
Senso-ji temple is a substantial complex. It dates back to 645 making it Tokyo’s oldest temple. It’s also very beautiful. All of which make it extremely popular and in a city the size of Tokyo it becomes very crowded at times. Most of this crowd is concentrated around the gate and in the courtyard at the front, inside the temple buildings and throughout the rest of the temple grounds it’s not so busy.
We highly recommend having a full look around inside, while many of the structures have been rebuilt in the post war era there are many statues and structures to see, a koi pond beneath the concrete bridge, a dramatic pagoda and a ‘secret garden’ tucked away behind it that’s a must see if you visit between March and early May when it’s open to the public.
5. Asakusa Shrine
Asakusa Shrine can be easily missed on a visit to Sensoji but it’s adjacent to the temple and worth including in your visit. If you exit the Hondo hall of the temple to the left you’ll make you way into the temple but if instead you take the less intuitive exit to the left or head that way later you’ll find the shrine.
Asakusa shrine honours the brothers who discovered the principal idol of Senso-ji temple back in 645 while fishing. Legend says that while their fishing that day in the Sumida River was unsuccessful they found a statue in their net. Despite throwing it back and moving location several times they continued to have only the idol in their net each time they pulled it up. Later the idol was recognised as the Bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit) and the discovery led to the temple being founded here at Senso-ji.
6. Sumida Park
The Sumida Park is a riverside park on both banks of the Sumida River. It’s most popular during the cherry blossom season and is especially beautiful and crowded when in full bloom with cherry blossom. At other times of year it’s less busy but still a nice natural break as you walk between Sensoji temple and the Skytree or arrive at on the river trip. On the Skytree side the park is larger and includes a pond.
7. Tokyo Skytree
Tokyo Skytree is the newest and tallest of the towers to get a view out over the city and beyond. On a clear day you’ll see as far as Mt Fuji in Kanagawa Prefecture. There are two viewing floors, one at 350 metres and another at 450 metres each providing expansive views in all directions. Watch out on the lower level for the glass floor, do you dare walk on it and look down between your feet to the world below? I don’t have a fear of heights at all but it’ll still quite an odd feeling.
From Sumida Park on the Sensjo-ji side of the river it’s about a 15 minute walk to cross the Sumida River and walk along to Tokyo Skytree. If you prefer you can take the Ginza line on the subway one stop from Asakusa station.
8. Solomachi Shopping Centre
Tokyo Solamachi is the shopping centre adjacent to the Tokyo Skytree, there’s a subway and railway station underneath for convenient access. The shopping centre is huge with over 300 stores. Pretty much anything you might be looking for can be found here but a couple of sections that stood out to me were:
- On the ground floor as you come in from the Skytree there’s a large section that’s perfect for souvenir shopping. There were all the usual things you’d expect but many that I hadn’t seen elsewhere and at all price points. This is also where I saw the demonstration of traditional candy shaping and painting called amezaiku that we’d missed in Kawagoe earlier in the trip.
- There’s a good Pokemon Centre here, I didn’t even know about this one but it might be a good incentive for younger family members to spend some time around the shops.
- Food Marche on the 2nd Floor is where I spent most of my time looking at the fabulous supplies. This is a foodie paradise with a bit of everything, there’s fresh fish and produce but also specialty sweets, deli items and all manner of dry goods many of which make great gifts or pantry staples to take home.
- There are so many dining options here it will make your head spin trying to decide. I think most levels we went past had some dining options but the main dining levels are 7 and 8, then 30 and 31. At the higher levels you are around 150 meters up and some of the restaurants offer fantastic views out over Asukusa, Kinshicho and other nearby areas plus the Skytree itself. We ate at Kunimi on level 31 and would highly recommend it, the food and service were excellent plus we were lucky enough to have the most incredible view.
9. River Cruise
Seeing a city from the water is another top recommendation if you want to really get a feel for the place. In Tokyo that’s the Sumida River with Suijobus cruises. We did the boat ride during the sakura blossom one year and it’s was a great way to get a different view of the peak blossom season without the crowds.
The cruise runs between Asakusa and Hamarikyu gardens near the original Tsukiji markets and we found it a good way to tie together exploring the markets, a fresh sushi breakfast and then continue our exploration of Tokyo from Asakusa after the boat ride.
There’s a variety of boats in their fleet and some of them are pretty unique. I’d have wanted to take this trip even just to add this space-age looking boat to the collection of unique transport we’ve used in Japan but the new perspective on the city from the river was well worth it.
10. Asahi Beer Tower
You may already know the Asahi brand, it’s a popular beer all around the world and one of the most well known from Japan. They make a huge variety and their head office is conveniently located in Asakusa if you’re in the area and plan to visit.
The Asahi headquarters are made up of two buildings, one designed to look like a beer glass with a frothy head of foam and the other has a distinctive golden flame on top.
Asahi started brewing on the site over 100 years ago so it has a long connection to the brand. While no beer is brewed here any longer, which means there’s no factory tour you might want to stop by for the interesting architecture or as an Asahi fan to taste from a full range of their beers.
11. Kappabashi Shopping Street
From Asakusa it’s about a 2 km (20 minute) walk west to neighbouring Ueno which can be a good destination to discover next. To make this walk more interesting wander via the Kappabashi Kitchenware shopping street. There are dozens of shops down here with a cooking and kitchenware focus. Although it focuses mainly on the restaurant trade it’s interesting to browse and an opportunity to pick up a unique and useful souvenir from the lacquer and ceramic ware, a Japanese kitchen knife or perhaps some plastic food?
How to get to Asakusa
We’ve mentioned before that our top tip for deciding where to stay in Tokyo is convenient access to subway and JR stations.
When making you way to Asakusa station from other parts of Tokyo you want either the Asakusa or Ginza line. For us access to the Ginza or Marunuchi line are the most useful to have in Tokyo because they access the areas we go most frequently but it really doesn’t matter too much, there are plenty of interchange stations where you can easily and quickly move from one line to another. If it all sounds a bit confusing check out our guide on how to master the Tokyo subway like a local.
Asakusa station is convenient for accessing Senso-ji temple and the surrounding attractions, just watch out when you arrive for exits A3~A5 and you’ll come out very near the first temple gate and shopping street.
If you prefer to start on the other side of the river with Tokyo Skytree or take the subway across from Asakusa rather than walking the Skytree and Solamachi have their own subway station underneath that you can also access on the Ginza line.
Where to stay in Asakusa
As we’ve seen there are some interesting attractions to discover by both day and night in the Asakusa region and there’s also a good selection of restaurants across a variety of price points. While it’s outside the central city region meaning a bit more commuting to get to some of the more popular destinations in Tokyo it does have 2 useful subway lines. The Ginza and Akasuka line give access to a wide variety of destinations around the city and connections to JR stations if you’re headed further afield. It’s also the Tokyo base for the private Tobu Railways that service the northern suburbs and through to Saitama, Tochigi and Gunma prefectures, you’d use this line for a day trip to Nikko for example.
Being slightly less central you may be able to pick up good value deals for a stay in Asakusa, as an indication it’s around 15-20 minutes to Tokyo Station or Ginza.
The Gate Hotel
The Gate Hotel Asakusa is very conveniently located within the historic neighborhood of Asakusa. From the hotels it’s a 5 minute walk to the subway station or the Karinarimon gate and there is an excellent selection of restaurants in the immediate area of the hotel. The Gate Hotel is a boutique style hotel that opened around 6 years ago. It’s modern in design, clean and offers good sized rooms for Tokyo with free WIFI.
A good mid-range pick is the Richmond Hotel Asakusa which coincidentally is also around 6 years old and rated for it’s modern design and cleanliness. It’s located 3 minutes walk from Senso-ji temple, 10 minutes to Asakusa subway station and 30 minutes to the Tokyo Skytree. You’ll find the rooms a little smaller but there’s free WIFI, a coin operated laundry onsite and a microwave for guest use.
Tobu Hotel Levant Tokyo
A slightly different option is the Tobu Hotel Levant which is on the other side of the river, technically in Kinshicho making it slightly further from the main attractions of Asakusa. It’s a 2 km walk to Skytree and 3 km to Sensoji temple, or a couple of minutes by subway. However as far as convenience goes this hotel has a whole lot going for it. It’s a stop for the hotel limousine bus going to both the Haneda and Narita airport or you can get a direct train from either airport. I did it from Narita recently and it’s so easy with no transfers. The hotel also offers a free shuttle to the Disney Parks making it very attractive to families.
The big bonus though is that it’s adjacent to Kinshicho station which is a JR and subway station making it super easy to get around in Tokyo and further afield. There’s good shopping, convenience stores and a huge number of restaurants at all price points and styles nearby.
A map of Asakusa attractions
If you plan on taking on a walking tour of Asakusa taking in some of the attractions we’ve mentioned here in the post I’ve included a map below that you can access or save to help plan your route.
Intersted in Asakusa? Save to Pinterest for easy reference later
If you have any questions about Asakusa please ask in the comments below, we do our best to answer all questions and comments. If you have anything to add or suggestions to include that we might have missed we’d love to hear your ideas too.