If you only have time for one temple in Tokyo, this is it, no question. Senso-ji is grand, and if you time it well, you can see its dramatic beauty both during the day and at night.
History and Legend of Senso-ji
The story is that two brothers from Asakusa were fishing in the nearby Sumida river. When they pulled up their net, they found a statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon. Their village leader then decided to become a Buddhist priest and make his home into a temple to house the statue. Later on, the statue was hidden from mortal eyes. The temple was founded in 645, making it the oldest in Tokyo.
It was almost completely destroyed during World War 2, but it has been carefully and beautifully rebuilt.
Upon entering the Kaminarimon (“Thunder Gate”), visitors come to a long avenue called Nakamise-dori. This street is lined with dozens of shops selling Japanese trinkets, ukiyoe art prints, kimono, and of course, food.
It’s a delightful shopping street, lots of fun to meander through. A particular treat was watching the shopkeepers making ningyo-yaki (“fried dolls”). These are bite-sized cakes made of a batter of flour, eggs, and sugar, shaped in an iron mold. They can be sold as-is, or with lots of different fillings. If you’ve had the much larger fish-shaped pastries, these are very similar. Fresh ningyo-yaki is delicious! The one we bought had a really yummy chestnut filling.
Eating while walking is considered rude or improper in Japan. There will be situations where this is difficult to avoid (like when you buy a small treat at a store which has no seating area). In those cases, just stay stationary and out of the way while you eat your food. That way you are not spilling crumbs. And remember to throw your wrappers away in the proper receptacles–recycling is a big deal here too!
Like many temples, this is actually a complex composed of several buildings. Once you cross Nakamise-dori, you’ll approach another large gate called the Hozomon. This denotes the entrance to the temple proper. The Hozomon features Nio, two muscular and fearsome guardians of Buddha.
Inside the complex, you’ll see a 5-story pagoda and several smaller buildings leading up to the main hall which is said to house the statue of Kannon.
For your visit, I strongly recommend coming in late afternoon. This way you can enjoy the temple complex both during the daytime and at night. The transformation is stunning! If you arrived a bit too early and don’t feel like meandering through Nakamise-dori, there is a little arbor near the Hozomon where you can sit and people watch while the sun sets.
You can easily reach Senso-ji by taking one of the various train lines to Asakusa station.