Asakusa is one of Tokyo's most interesting and colorful districts. It developed around Senso-ji Temple, and has been a vibrant part of the city since the beginning of the 17th century. Today, it is well known even outside Japan as a tourist destination, and many visitors come here from abroad.
According to a legend that goes back more than 1,000 years, two brothers went fishing one day on the Sumida-gawa River in eastern Asakusa, and their net snagged a tiny statue of Kannon, the Buddhist personification of infinite compassion. Kannon was enshrined there out of a deep sense of piety, and this is how Senso-ji Temple began.
A huge paper lantern hangs under Kaminari-mon Gate at the main entrance to the temple grounds. Pass through the gate and you will come to a walkway that leads in a straight line north to Hozo-mon Gate and Kannon-do Hall. The walkway between the two gates is about 250 meters long, and takes you through the Nakamise shopping district. Here, lined up side by side, are many small stores selling everything from souvenirs to manju buns and dolls. Colorful fans (both folding and flat types), umbrellas and paper lanterns combine with happi coats and video games to catch the eye and stop you in your tracks.
At the end of the long Nakamise walkway you'll find an entirely different atmosphere-a large open space, partly taken up by the Hozo-mon Gate and the Kannon-do Hall beyond it, with a five-storied pagoda on the left. You'll see all kinds of people in front of the Hall. Some are pilgrims, throwing coins into offering boxes or perhaps buying o-mikuji papers that tell their fortune. Other people come here to stroll about, or maybe to feed the pigeons.
To the right of the Kannon-do Hall you'll see a Shinto shrine. It's small, but it draws a huge and boisterous crowd every May for Sanja-matsuri, one of the three big festivals of old Edo (present-day Tokyo). During the festival, three portable mikoshi shrines are carried through the streets of 44 districts that maintain close affiliations with Asakusa Shrine. Each of the mikoshi could be carried by 30 people, but about 2,000 jostle against each other for the privilege. The festival is famous for its electrifying atmosphere, and is a fitting way to celebrate the beginning of summer in Tokyo.