Japan is home to an abundance of breath-taking temples and shrines. Among them, Sensoji Temple is probably one of the most photographed and visited sites. Built in 645 AD, it is THE oldest temple in Tokyo and has stood witness to centuries of history. A visit here is definitely a must for anyone who wants to see the grandeur of Japanese culture. Other than that though, it is simply an unforgettable experience to walk along Nakamise Street and bask in the vermillion beauty of this impressive architectural structure. Get the lay of the land so your visit would be rightfully packed with ‘uniquely Japanese’ encounters.
There are three stations that are a 3-5 minute walk to Sensoji. Don’t be confused as they are all called Asakusa Station – the train lines that run them are different. Use the most convenient line based on your starting location and learn below how to get from the train platform to Sensoji’s Kaminarimon.
Using Ginza Line Asakusa Station
Marked by the letter G and its mustard orange line color, you would probably be using Ginza Line if you will be starting out from anywhere near Shibuya, Ginza or Ueno.
Upon getting off at the last stop, G19 – Asakusa, look for the signs pointing you to Exit 1 (Sensoji Temple/Kaminarimon Gate). To help out tourists, they are conspicuously placed all over the station and one of the first things you would spot when you pass the ticket gate.
When you get to the ground level, you would see a Family Mart right in front. Walk towards the direction of that Family Mart and within a minute or so, you should reach Kaminarimon.
Using Toie Asakusa Line Asakusa Station
Toei Asakusa is a subway line recognizable through the letter A and its rose-colored (sometimes closer to vermillion red) track symbol.
If you are coming from Narita or Haneda Airport, there is a chance you would be getting on this train as this line also offers Airport Limited Express trips by connecting to private railways (Keisei and Keikyu). Places like Shimbashi and Oshiage are also some notable stations on its track.
Asakusa Station is the 18th stop along Toie Asakusa Line’s way. When you arrive, be sure to head for Exit A4. Once out of Exit A4, you will see a DOUTOR Coffee Shop in front of you. From there, turn right and keep walking until you hit the main road where you will see a building named SHIDAX. Then, turn left and look out for Kaminarimon which would be on your right side, across the street.
Using Tobu Skytree Line Asakusa Station
The letters TS inside a blue border is the mark of Tobu Skytree Line. This is another train you might be using if you’re coming in from Oshiage or Tokyo Skytree.
The Tobu Skytree Line Asakusa Station is actually inside a mall called Ekimise. The train will stop on the second floor level of the mall. Go down the stairs in front of the ticket gate and walk straight out of the building (using the North Exit). You will find yourself in a crossing. Cross the street towards KFC. Then, facing KFC, continue to your left. Once you reach the corner, turn right. Keep walking in that direction until you reach Kaminarimon.
Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) is the iconic gate of Sensoji. There are actually many ways to enter this buddhist temple particularly if you want to avoid the hordes of people out front and on Nakamise Street. However, especially for tourists, I still think that nothing beats starting your visit with the quintessential Asakusa experience of approaching the giant red chochin lantern. Don’t let the crowd sway you from the beauty of this moment and be sure to:
Take a snap in front of the lantern.
The naturally striking imagery of the chochin lantern is guranteed to make for a great photo and this would make a great memorabilia for your trip.
Check out the bottom of the lantern and say hello to the dragon carving.
This carving is even more impressive in person and the strokes seem to be dancing in the light.
Right after passing through Kaminarimon, you will enter a 200-meter shopping street called Nakamise Dori (Dori = Street). Walking along Nakamise is an experience in and of itself. Many of the stalls sell souvenirs and traditional Japanese goods such as yukatas and paper fans. In addition, Nakamise is also a great food destination. In fact, don’t be surprised if you end up eating your way through the entire street.
Being in a touristy area, you might think that the prices here are outrageous but they actually are not, so:
Drop by the stores to find some kawaii merchandise.
The very cute kimono-clad dolls you see below are actually umbrellas sold for ¥1300. Definitely a worthy novelty item to bring to your loved ones back home.
Grab some snacks at the stalls nearby.
Believe me, there are so many cute and delicious goodies to choose from that you would find yourself overwhelmed. Some of the wildly popular places could have you lining up for a long time but are definitely worth the wait. If you have time to spare and are looking to reward your taste buds with some Japanese delights, you might want to brave the long lines of the following shops:
Asakusa Kibi Dango Azuma (浅草きびだんごあづま）- You can find this store on your left side shortly after entering Nakamise Dori. From here, you can get 5 sticks of Dango for only ¥330. Dango is a must-try Japanese snack that is made of mochi and coated with soybean powder.
Kokonoe (九重）- Among the last of the stores that trail Nakamise Street is Kokonoe which is famous for their Agemanju. Typically, manju is a mochi snack that is stuffed with red bean paste. This store, however, is especially good at the ‘age’ part which means to ‘deep fry’. The variety of flavors that they offer (which includes green tea) is also a reason why they attract a lot of customers. Prices range from ¥120-200 depending on what kind of Agemanju you will be getting.
Asakusa Menchi (浅草メンチ）- Especially around lunch hour, the line here is staggeringly long – a testament to just how delicious their fried meat croquettes (called ‘Menchi Katsu) are. You can get these savory hot treats for only ¥200 each. To get to this store from Kaminarimon, you’re going to have to turn to the left once you reach Sensoji Kindergarten (the place with the brown fence where photography is not allowed).
Kimuraya (木村家）- Just a few stalls before Kokonoe is Kimuraya. Come here to get a taste of their very popular Ningyo Yaki (doll cakes) – sponge cake that come in various shapes (fish, bird, even chochin lantern) and filled with sweet red bean paste. A box of 8 of these cute Ningyo Yakis would set you back ¥600.
At the end of Nakamise Street, you will reach Hozomon – the second and actual main gate to Sensoji Temple.
Beside the golden lanterns, you will find two Nio (guardians of the Buddha) statues which are said to be modeled after Sumo wrestlers in the 1960s.
These were sculpted by an artist from the Murayama town of Yamagata and in order to commemorate the achievement, citizens of Murayama get together every couple of years to make a giant pair of waraji straw sandals. You will see these 2200+ kilogram sandals at the back side of the gate but for safety purposes, be sure not to get too close to these heavy works of art.
Facing Sensoji Temple itself, on your left side, you will find the Five Storied Pagoda (Goju no To) which is now a rare type of structure in Tokyo. Be aware though, that the building is actually a graveyard and only people with dead loved ones buried inside are allowed access.
Official Sensoji Shops and Cleansing Rituals
Walking on, you will find shops on both sides that sell official Sensoji merchandise. You can simply observe them as you pass by but for the complete Japanese temple experience, you might want to try them out as well.
First, on the right side, you can get your Omikuji Fortune. If you are curious about what the future holds for you, then definitely give this a try. To start, you pay ¥100 for the service. You then walk over to one of the metal containers and shake it vigorously until a stick falls out from the bottom. The markings on the stick will lead you to one of the wooden boxes. Open the box indicated on the stick and from inside, get the piece of paper that tells your fortune. Since a lot of foreigners come to the temple, English translations are helpfully indicated on the paper.
If you end up getting bad fortune, worry not. Head to one of these red frames and tie the piece of paper that you got there. The Japanese believe that this rids you of bad omens.
On the left side of the street are the windows that sell the jewel-colored Omamoris. These Japanese amulets are usually sold at Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples and would make for amazing souvenirs. There are so many of them to choose from and the designs, of course, aren’t random. Take a closer look and you will see the meaning of each of them.
Continuing your approach to the temple, you will see people gathered around a large censer (incense burner). You can get a bundle of the incense sticks for only ¥100 from the shop at the right.
You can then light those using the fire pit provided.
Add your incense sticks to the pot and waft the smoke towards you for ‘cleansing’.
Japanese people believe that directing the smoke to any part of your body that’s aching will cure the pain.
Chozu is the act of cleansing yourself with water before entering sacred grounds. At temples and shrines, it is customary to find a Chozuya located at the entrance – this is a large basin with special wooden dippers which visitors can use to purify themselves before offering prayers.
To show respect to the Japanese culture and religion. It is important to follow proper etiquette when performing Chozu.
The first thing you should do is to hold one of the wooden dippers provided with your right hand and use it to scoop some water (make sure that you get enough water for the entire Chozu process).
Stepping back a little to make sure that the water you use will flow down the canal surrounding the Chozuya, pour some of the water slowly over your left hand.
Next, transfer the dipper to your left hand and use it to wash your right hand this time.
After that, transfer the dipper back to your right hand, pour some water in your scooped left hand and use that to rinse your mouth.
Then, wash the handle of the dipper using the remaining water by leaning it a bit forward (letting the water flow down naturally).
Lastly, return the dipper back to the basin with the scoop side down.
The Actual Sensoji Temple
Praying at the Temple
Purified, you can now proceed to the temple itself. You would notice people just naturally fall in lines at the staircase. These people are on the way to make their prayers and you can join them to make your way to the altar as well.
When you get to the end of the line, throw a coin into the offertory box. You can then follow the “Ni Rei, Ni Hakushu, Ichi Rei” customary process of praying and wishing at the temple. This means, you first need to bow twice (Ni Rei). Then, clap twice (Ni Hakushu) and make your prayers. Once done, bow once more (Ichi Rei).
Sensoji actually has two offertory boxes you can use. One at the top of the stairs and another right in front of the main prayer area.
Inside the Temple
Inside the temple itself, you will first notice the central prayer area behind a huge glass window. It is magnificently designed in gold and it is said that buried within its grounds is the mythical statue of the Buddhist deity Kannon which prompted the founding of the temple. Only priests or people who have obtained permission are allowed to go inside.
Don’t forget to look up once inside the temple! On the ceiling are perfectly framed paintings depicting scenes from the teachings of Buddhism.
FYI: Though Sensoji Temple is technically open 24 hours, the main hall and the shops at Nakamise close soon after nightfall. The temple main hall is open from 06:00 to 17:00 in April to September and from 06:30 – 17:00 in October to March.
Bonus: Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center
Just across the street from Kaminarimon, the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center is technically not a part of Sensoji. However, I think it is definitely worth dropping by if you are in the area.
The place is not only a good resource of information but is a great rest stop for weary tourists. This 8-floor building has lots to offer such as:
Restrooms can be difficult to find when you’re traveling. Entering this building, you can go directly down to the basement floor (the staircase is opposite the entrance) and find many a well-maintained restroom stall. A plus for mommies traveling with their babies – nursing rooms are also available on the 2nd floor.
Free Internet Service
Ah, another elusive gem for tourists – access to the internet. If you visit the information center, you can get free wifi on the 2nd floor.
On the Information Lobby (1st Floor), you will also find a foreign currency exchange desk. I can’t speak for their rates though as I haven’t personally tried it. However, feel free to ask any one of the helpful staff if you need some of your cash from home changed into yen.
Travel Information and Tickets
Not only will you be able to gather travel information (in four languages: Japanese, English, Chines, Korean) through the center’s internet service, abundant selection of tourist magazines and accommodating staff, you can actually buy certain tickets from here (Information Lobby, 1st Floor).
Immersion in Japanese Culture
The Multipurpose and Exhibition Areas on the 6th and 7th Floors respectively are constantly packed with events for curious tourists. On the day we went there, there was an exhibit for metal artworks done by Japanese artists as well as a free class about a traditional Japanese dance.
Afternoon coffee with a side of a world-class view
On the 8th floor, there is a cafe which provides a great view of Asakusa including Nakamise Street and Tokyo Skytree.
Great Photo Opportunities
Even if you are not in the mood for some coffee, be sure to still head up to the 8th Floor. Beside the cafe is a free Observation Deck where you can admire the view of the city of Asakusa and take picture-perfect snaps of Tokyo Skytree.