Tokyo – Asakusa
Asakusa is a delightful area for kids, combining the best of old and new, and a great place to just stroll around and shop for traditional souvenirs. The Senso-ji is the oldest temple in Tokyo, and one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, but it's not a solemn, quiet temple. From morning to night, it's a busy place – businessmen stop by the temple to toss coins in the offering box on their way to work, after school children meet their friends and munch on snacks as they walk up the Nakamise shopping street, the giant lanterns and pagoda are beautifully lit up at night.
|Tip: When kids have jet lag and are up early, take a walk through Nakamise and Denboin streets. The shops are all closed, but the metal shutters are beautifully painted with traditional and contemporary scenes – samurai on horseback, ladies in kimono, kabuki actors, festivals, daily life in the neighborhood, boats on the Sumida River, spring flowers and snow scenes.
|Asakusa walking tour – Here's our favorite walking tour with kids in Asakusa (prounounced "Ah-sock-sah). The route is outlined here, each stop is described in detail below.
|From the Asakusa subway stop (Ginza line), use Exit 3, marked Sensoji temple. Go up the stairs to the street, turn right, and walk toward the willow tree. You're standing in front of the red Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate). Go through the gate, and walk up Nakamise-dori (street lined with shops).
|At the end Nakamise-dori, on the left side, take a look at nine paintings, illustrating the story of the two fisherman finding the statue of Kannon, and the founding of the temple.
|Go through the Hozo-mon Gate (Treasure Storage Gate), also decorated with a huge lantern. Look up at the five-story Asakusa Pagoda to the left.
|Walk up the Hondo (Main Hall), it's not necessary to take off your shoes at this temple. Toss in a few coins to the offering gate if you like. Look up at the ceiling, decorated with paintings of a large dragon in the center, and angels on either side.
|Go back out of the main hall, and turn left, then go straight until you reach the Asakusa-jinja with two big stone lion-dogs out front. Off to the right, follow a path to the small Hikan Inari shrine, decorated with stone foxes.
|Retrace your steps, walking back (south) to the shaded area with benches, and restrooms close by. Walk by the restrooms, until you come to a little hill with the small Bentendo temple and huge bronze bell, the "Bell of Time."
|Next to the bell is a small playground with climbing structures.
|From the playground, continue walking straight (south) on the small street, until you come a biggish street, turn right on Denboin-dori. Walk west on Denboin-dori, looking for statues of the five thieves, about three or four long blocks.
|Walk back on Denboin-dori, to Nakamise-dori, the main shopping street. Go back down the street to the Kaminari-mon gate, and you're back where you started.
|Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate) – In the center of the gate is a huge red lantern, and on either side are two huge guardian deities. On the left is Raijin, god of thunder, on the right is Fujin, god of wind. The guardian deities look fierce, but they're there to protect Kannon (god of mercy) in the Senso-ji temple.
|Nakamise shopping street has plenty of fun food. Try treats, in shapes of birds, lanterns, or pagodas, filled with red bean paste, called ningyo yaki – watch them being made in sizzling iron molds, or okoshi, sweet of popped rice rectangular crispy rice bars in pink, green and white, and big round crunchy senbei (rice crackers), freshly made.
|Kids can shop for miniature samurai figures, drums, kokeshi dolls, small ninja costumes and cotton yukata, waving cats, painted fans, kimono sashes, hair ornaments, scarves, wind bells, and toys.
|Hozo-mon (Treasure Storage Gate) – Traditionally the upper level of the gate was used to store Buddhist scriptures and temple treasures. On either side are two fiece Nio deities, which protect the temple. Walk around back side of the gate to see two huge straw sandals left and right – the sandals weigh 400 kg.
|Senso-ji (Asakusa Kannon Temple) – The Senso-ji is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, dating back to 628 AD. At that time, two fisherman brought up a small golden statue in their fishing net. They tossed it back, but the little figure came up again, and again in the net. The fisherman took the statue to the village elder, who realized this was Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and founded a temple here in Asakusa. The appearance of Kannon was so miraculous, a golden dragon also descended from heaven, and in March and October each year, the Golden Dragon Dance is celebrated at the Senso-ji.
|The tiny golden Kannon statue is still stored in the temple, but you won't see it on the altar – it's safely hidden away.
|Asakusa-jinja and Hikan Inari Shrine –
|Asakusa-jinja – This shrine (also called the Shrine of the Three Guardians) is dedicated to the two fisherman who found the Kannon statue and village elder who founded Senso-ji. The two stone statues of lion-dogs (komainu) protect the shrine against evil spirits. In front of the main hall is a rack filled with wooden votive plaques – kids can purchase a plaque, and write their wish on it, hang it up with all the others.
|Hikan Inari Shrine – This shrine was built in the 19th century by a local Asakusa man, after his his wife recovered from a serious illness. The shrine has stone fox statues with red bibs (one is a mom and fox cub), which are guardians of the rice god Inari, and lots of white fox offering figures.
|"Bell of Time" – The huge bronze bell was made in 1692, and it's big, 212 meters high. During the Edo era, bells chimed the time at nine different locations around the city, including the Senso-ji. Basho wrote a poem about the bells, "Sounding through clouds of flowers/ Is it Ueno or Asakusa?"
|Today, every morning at 6 am, a priest in the temple rings the "bell of time" (the bell doesn't use a clapper, instead, the bell is struck with a wooden log).
|Thieves of Denboin-dori – Kids will have fun finding the five thieves of Denboin street – statues of colorful folk heroes.
|Four thieves are characters from a popular kabuki play; the leader is Nippon Daemon, one of the thieves, Benten Kozo, is expert at disguising himself as woman. The fifth thief Nakamura Jirokichi (nickname "Rat Boy"), a real burglar in the early 19th century, stole from rich samurai and daimyos.
|Starting on Denboin-dori (about two blocks east of Nakamise-dori), walk west for several blocks. Hint: The leader of the thieves, Nippon Daemon, is in the middle of the street. Three other thieves are on rooftops, near to each other (Benten Kozo is dressed as a woman).
|Jirokichi is at the western end of Denboin-dori, hiding on a rooftop with a box of gold coins under his arm.
|Hanayashiki Amusement park – Just five minutes west from the Senso-ji, is a small amusement park, "The old park with a smile" (it was originally a "flower park" in the mid 19th century). A carousel, swan boats, little ferris wheel are perfect for younger kids, Roller Coaster and Space Shot are thrills for bigger kid, plus a haunted house, ghost mansion, game corner, food court and snacks.
|Drum Museum – Drums are important in Japanese culture, rituals and festivals. In this excellent museum, kids will see not just drums of Japan (in small, medium and large sizes), but also drums from Asia, Africa, and South America. Best of all, drums with a musical note label can be played (drum sticks are provided)! Plan on spending some time hearing sounds from around the world.
|On second floor, are drums for sale and two beautiful portable shrines (mikoshi), like those carried in Asakusa festivals.
|Asakusa festivals – Asakusa has festivals throughout the year, including the very large Sanja Matsuri. At the twice yearly Golden Dragon Dance (Kinryu no Mai), a large golden dragon is carried by eight strong men from the Kaminari-mon Gate, all the way up to the Senso-ji. In the courtyard in front of the temple, school children in uniforms are seated on the ground, and everyone else gathers around. The dragon dances around the circle, accompanied by a group of musicians and drummer. At the end, everyone touches the dragon's beard or golden scales for good luck in the coming year.
|Waterbus (Tokyo Cruise) – Take a 40 min. cruise on the Sumida River from Asakusa, to Hama-rikyu Gardens or continuing on to Hinode Pier. This is a fun, inexpensive boat ride, passing under thirteen different bridges, painted in bright colors – red, yellow, orange, blue and green. Some bridges have subway trains zipping over them, other boats chug by in the water, and there's lots to see on either side of the river.
|The waterbus pier is located on the Sumida River, next to the Azuma-bashi bridge, east of the Asakusa (Ginza line) subway stop.
|Tokyo Skytree Town – Across the Sumida River east is Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world, 634 meters (2,080 ft high), plus a large shopping complex, restaurants, and aquarium.
|Tokyo Skytree – Ride up to the observation decks (there are two, one 350 meters, the other 450 meters high) for panoramic views of Tokyo in all directions. Tip: Ticket lines may be long, so allow plenty of time.
|Sumida Aquarium has marine life of Tokyo Bay, islands close to Tokyo, coral reefs, plus two large open pools with fur seals and penguins. Exhibits range from tiny little tanks with exquisite sea creatures and moon jellies, to a huge tank two stories high, recreating the ocean environment around the Ogasawara Islands. Penguin feedings and seasonal activities, the aquarium is well-suited to younger kids.
|On the upper floors of Skytree Town are sit-down restaurants, an extensive food court, and take-out from food halls on the lower levels (table and chairs are available on the decks outside). Pick up bread or pastries shaped like the Skytree tower, or cider in tower-shaped bottles.
|The shopping area has tons of shops, including toys and characters from Japanese TV shows and movies.
|Tip: Tokyo Skytree Town covers a large area, with multiple levels, and it's easy to get turned around. There are two different subway stops for Tokyo Skytree, opposite sides of the complex. For the Hanzomon, Asakusa, Keisei Oshiage subway lines, the Oshiage stop exits at the East Tower on the east side. The Tobu Skytree stop, Tobu Skytree subway line, exits at the west side, Solamachi shopping area.
Nakamise-dori (see above for details) is a fun place for kids to shop.
Kappabashi-dori – This street is full of shops selling plastic food that's displayed in front of Japanese restaurants. Kids can have fun shopping for plastic sushi in all shapes and sizes, tempura, noodle dishes, as well as familiar foods such as ice cream, pasta, hamburgers and pizza.