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| BNE July/August 2015

Shopping and shrines

in Asakusa

In stark contrast to Akihabara, the Asakusa

district is a slice of old Japan, dating back to

the 7th century. Passing through the vermilion-

lacquered Kaminarimon Gate (Thunder Gate),

the symbol of Asakusa, traditional Japanese

culture is everywhere. The main attraction

here is the ancient Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo’s

oldest, built in 645, as a tribute to an important

Buddhist deity. Although largely destroyed in

WWII, the buildings have been restored to

their original condition. Wandering around its

vast grounds I feel a sense of calm, despite the

constant flow of visitors and worshippers. Some

30 million people visit this popular temple

every year.

Along Nakamise-dori Street, one of Japan’s

oldest shopping streets which leads to the

temple, I buy a hand-made silk kimono jacket

from one of the many shops for around $25.

The shopping street has a history of several

centuries and sells a multitude of traditional

goods from hand-made Japanese paper to

clothes and sweets at reasonable prices.

Tokyo’s tallest tree

From Asakusa Station, it’s a two-minute train

ride to the Tokyo Skytree. At 634 metres it’s

impossible to miss.

I buy a ‘fast ticket’ for around $29, which

is only available to international visitors so

you don’t have to wait in line. The elevator

ladies greet me as though I am the most

important person in the world as I head up to

the observation deck where I’m rewarded with

360-degree panoramic views across the city.

Back down to earth I have time to visit the

planetarium in the Solamachi (Sky Town)

building next door. It features more than 300

shops and restaurants and an entire floor with

original souvenir and craft shops, and is well

worth visiting. Shows screen throughout the

day, but two special ones at 8pm and 9pm

provide the healing scent of aromatherapy to

match cool audio-visual scenes of the starry sky.

Super Shinjuku

Shinjuku is where neon signs turn night into

day and Tokyoites come out to play. Shinjuku

Station is the world’s busiest railway station,

carrying more than two million passengers

every day. I figure the best way to experience

the organised chaos is to jump right in.

Day and night, Shinjuku is overflowing with

restaurants, bars, shops and giant video screens.

Especially fascinating is the Golden Gai, a small

area between the Shinjuku Town Hall and the

Hanazono Shrine, in the Kabuki-cho district,

Tokyo’s red-light district. It’s a tiny fragment of

old Tokyo, providing a glimpse of what the city

was like in the past. Here, more than 200 tiny

bars are crammed into six narrow alleys, some

only a few metres wide. Each only seats around

eight to 10 people and they are all unique,

some playing music from hip hop to pop, while

others are odes to movies, horse-racing and

have names like ‘Without a Signature Café’ or

‘Favorite things of school students in the 1980s’.

My advice is to wander and try a few that you

like the look of. The bars usually open around

8pm and close around 5am. Beer or wine costs

around 700 yen ($7), cocktails 700-1000 yen

($7-10) with a light snack, and most have a

cover charge.

The buildings are ramshackle and the alleys

dimly lit – but Tokyo has one of the lowest

Senso=ji Temple, Asakusa