Almost all great cities in the world have big rivers running through them, transporting people, trade and culture, and Tokyo has the Sumida River flowing into Tokyo Bay. Along the Sumida in the northeast part of central Tokyo is Asakusa, Tokyo’s oldest entertainment hub since the Edo period circa 1603 to 1868. Visit Asakusa and you will get a whiff of how the common folks of old Edo amused themselves. So unlike the stereotype of a modern workaholic salary man, you will witness that the Japanese always knew how to let their hair down.
Unquestionably, the most famous landmark of Asakusa is Kaminari-mon (thunder gate), the huge red lantern hung in front of the main gate of Sensoji Temple. Enter Kaminari-mon and walk down Nakamise, a narrow strip lined with souvenir shops on both sides that leads up to Sensoji Temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. It is said that in the year 628 AD, a statue of a kannon (bodhisattva of mercy) was caught tangled in two fishermen brothers’ net in the Sumida River. This kannon then became the object of worship on which Sensoji was founded. Right next to Sensoji is the Asakusa Shrine that worships the two brothers and another influential figure at the time all of whom were given Shinto demi-god status.
The Sensoji bodhisattva has always been revered and loved by the people and the temple prospered with the constant flow of worshippers since ancient times. In the Edo period, shops, small theaters and show tents started to appear in the surrounding areas of the temple. This was the burgeoning of the Times Square of Edo, where the commoners found their entertainment in kabuki (all male cast theater), plays, doll theaters, comedy and freak shows. Also there was Yoshiwara, the infamous red-light district where its ‘activities’ were considered to be one of the more costly forms of entertainment until prostitution became illegal in 1956.
As Tokyo grew and entertainment hot spots dispersed to wider areas, Asakusa saw a decline in its glittery luster and prominence. However, as you venture down the winding alleys and side streets, you can still feel the excitement and human drama of the olden days lingering in the air.
So, what kinds of modern day entertainment are there that Asakusa has to offer? There are still numerous small theaters of relatively low admission fee which feature comedy, pseudo-kabuki, rakugo (traditional comic monologue), and high-end strip shows. You can enjoy thrilling rides at Hanayashiki, the first ever amusement park in Japan, have a ninja training experience, go on a boat cruise along the Sumida River, take a ride on a traditional rickshaw or go up the Sky Tree to get 360 degree breathtaking views of Tokyo from 450 meters above ground. In the summer, there is the spectacular Sumida fireworks, a series of matsuri (festivals) and bon-odori which is a traditional folk dance encircling a taiko (Japanese drum), all said to be forms of Shinto harvest rituals.
After all the fun you had experiencing old Tokyo, why not go for a more non-traditional alternative at Infinity Books and Café, located along the Asakusa-dori straight down the street from the Sky Tree. This quaint used English bookstore has a homey, cozy feel surrounded by shelves of books, where you can just walk in, sit and comfortably browse books while perhaps sipping a cold pint or two. The shop organizes a folk jam session every second Saturday of the month, which is a friendly mix of Japanese and foreigners, free of charge and open to all who enjoy folk music. Even a tourist passing through would feel welcomed and can experience a slice of the casual local scene where Tokyoites regardless of their country of origin get together to entertain and have fun.
Infinity Books & Café
1F Komagata Bashi Heights Bldg.
1-2-4 Azumabashi, Sumida-ku, Tokyo