Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Asakusa after dark

The temple district of Asakusa is another must-see on the Tokyo list. The locals pronounce it "Assak'sa", according to a rickshaw puller who chatted to me for a while in a forlorn attempt to get me in his tourist carriage. For a long time in the city's history, it was the centre of entertainment, as nobles and high-ups descended to the banks of the Sumida River for some unruly fun and games. These days, the modern-day nobles head off to Roppongi or Shinjuku, leaving Asakusa to that other key component of guilty pleasure - temples.

Asakusa's main sight is the stunning Sensō-ji temple, which is 30 seconds walk from the metro station at the end of the Ginza line. By day, it's packed with tourists - the majority of them from elsewhere in Japan - but at night, it's far less busy and the buildings look amazing as they are illuminated. The first part of the complex is the Kaminari-mon, 'Thunder Gate', dating originally from 942AD - although this one is a modern reconstruction (the 4m long lantern was made in 2003). Either side are the god of thunder, Raijin (left), and wind, Fujin (right).

Past the thunder gods is a long, straight, narrow street where the bottlenecks really happen. Nakamise-dori is a 250m long road of small shops and stalls that sell trinkets, charms, and food. In short, it's great for souvenirs and presents. At night, a lot of them have closed and gone home after trading, but it at least means you can walk down without too much difficulty. The disply of leaves are there to herald the start of Autumn - changing seasons have a big resonance in Japan.

At the end of the street are the main temple buildings, and another gate to pass under. The complex has been damaged by earthquakes at least ten times over the centuries, and was then destroyed in the firestorms of the Tokyo air-raids during World War II. In 1958 it was rebuilt and restored to the glorious vermillion and gold colour scheme. The traditional glowing lanterns on the run-up to the temple really add to the atmosphere.

And this is the main focus. Past a large incense burner dispensing 'lucky smoke' as one old man explained it to me, is the main hall and the altar. At night the doors are closed and the offering box placed outside, but still people climb the steps to pray. The temple is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. Legend has it two fishermen dredged up a small statue of her from the nearby Sumida in 628. Showing it to their local priest, he quickly recognised the significance and built a temple around it in his house, which was located in Asakusa.

It's a great place to wander around - the buildings are incredible, and in any direction the side streets have small restaurants and bars to keep you going. You can even arrive here by boat on a cruise up the Sumida if you like - but come here during the day to stock up on bits and pieces from the shops, then return at night to see the place illuminated, and looking completely different.