Wherein we start the day late and end up in a temple eating snacks.
I like to take my time when I’m on vacation. I don’t like rushing. To me, time spent slowly greeting the day is time well spent. My friend likes to start her day slow as well, so after getting some work done, making a trip to the grocery for supplies, cooking said supplies and having a nice lunch at home, we finally made our way to Asakusa, one bus ride from Tsukuba.
Asakusa used to be Tokyo’s entertainment district. Now the neighborhood is home to many small traditional establishments including shops, inns, and restaurants, especially those that specialize in tempura.
The sky was dark when we arrived, night arriving early during the latter part of the year. It was a short walk from the bus stop to where we were headed, Sensoji temple. Also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, this landmark is the oldest temple in Tokyo. According to legend, two brothers found a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, in the Sumida River. They threw the statue back but it returned to them. And when this kept happening, they realized it was holy. The temple was built in honor of the goddess.
The first thing visitors see at the temple grounds is the Kaminarimon–the beautifully named Thunder Gate–the temple’s outer gate and the symbol of both Asakusa and Tokyo. It is guarded by Raijin and Fujin, the gods of thunder and wind. Walk through and you will see two giant sandals hanging from the gate. The sandals symbolize the temple’s protectors. The handcrafted sandals were donated in 1941 by Maruyama town in the Yamagata Prefecture to protect the temple during World War II. The temple was destroyed. The temple gets a new pair from the village every decade.
In between the Thunder Gate and Hozomon, the temple’s second gate, is the centuries-old Nakamise Dori, a street lined with shops that sell souvenirs and street food. Walking down the street at night is quite the experience. Everything is awash in lights, with delicious smells coming from every other shop. Since this is a popular tourist spot, there’s obviously a crowd, but it’s never overwhelming and because this is Japan, everyone is polite. Now this is the kind of crowd I like!
We stopped to buy agemanju, battered and deep-fried mochi, from a chatty vendor who proclaimed that his were the best in the district. I tried the traditional red bean-filled one while my friend had the green tea one. They were delicious. Freshly cooked, the exterior is crisp and light, coating the soft, almost melty mochi nestled within. It’s very, very oily. A great snack to munch on while taking in the sights.
Before you get to the temple proper, you have to pass through Hozomon, the second gate, this one guarded by Nio, Buddha’s scary huge protectors. Named Agyo and Ungyo, they guard temple gates all over Japan and are said to scare people into enlightenment. Well, that’s one way of achieving inner peace!
And then there’s the temple proper. Sensoji closes around 5-6:30 pm, depending on the month, so we didn’t get to enter or participate in temple activities though we did enjoy the sight of the temple gorgeously lit up against the night sky.
Since we were in Asakusa, I was hoping to try some tempura, since that’s what the area is known for, but we had to make haste if we wanted to get to our next stop, Odaiba. So we said goodbye to Asakusa (and my hopes of tempura) and walked to where we could catch a ferry. All I knew about Odaiba was it was where the giant Gundam is located. I was about to find out that there’s more to the area than that!