Explore the Old Pleasure District of Asakusa in Tokyo: Where Old World Charm meets Serenity

Springtime in Japan
Shopping street leading to the Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo

A place of old world charm, spectacular temple grounds and great food, Asakusa is a vibrant oasis to visit and stay in Tokyo. Traditions are alive and the area oozes of ambiance. What used to be an area filled with gangsters, samurais, writers, artists, geishas and courtesans is now mainly a safe leisure and spiritual area, anchored by the Senso-Ji Temple founded in 628.

Senso-Ji Temple on a busy Sunday. Thousands of people visiting the shrine every day

The large Thunder God Gate is vibrant and impressive, and creates a powerful spiritual transition between the bustling life of Tokyo and the old world charm. A long shopping street leads to the temple, offering the best souvenirs of Tokyo as well as delightful mouthwatering street food. It is extremely crowded during the day with temple visitors. Take the side streets if you want to move faster, or savor the experience of being carried away by the crowds. Large gates with huge lanterns create the transition between the shopping arcade and the temple grounds.

Large lanterns at the temple gate

The temple architecture is impressive, with its layers of red roof structures, lanterns and shrines. Incense burning adds a sensory delight, but is overshadowed by the many young women in their bold patterned kimonos. I was delighted seeing the traditions are kept alive. Several smaller shrines and Japanese gardens dot the large temple grounds, making it a perfect weekend excursion for Tokyo’s residents and tourists alike.

Traditions are alive in Asakusa, where families arrive at the temple dressed in kimonos

Several quaint shopping arcades lead to the temple grounds from the side streets and offer some of the freshest sushi I have ever tasted, due to its proximity to the fish market. Old ramen houses and Izakaya restaurants are lining the side streets in the neighborhood. During the day the food stalls are competing for your attention, offering an array of freshly grilled seafood and beef skewers.

Street food stalls offer fresh seafood and many other delights

If your passion is the samurai history you will find several shops that can cater to your alter-ego whims, -or you will find numerous kimono rental places that will transfer you into a feminine seductive goddess or a stunning traditional couple.

Night life in Asakusa: charming young women

At night time the neighborhood slows down to a provincial old town charm and offers a very different ambiance and experience.

Shopping street in Asakusa turn into a samurai/geisha gallery at night

The local food will tantalize your taste buds, or you can walk around the old samurai district with the possibility to meet one of the remaining 40 Geishas.

Dine with the locals in Asakusa, even on cold evenings you can enjoy the street ambiance

Visiting the temple ground at night is a much more serene experience of calmness and devotion.

Temple grounds at night

I highly recommend staying at the Richmond Premier Hotel, which offers views over the temple grounds and is just steps away from delightful local restaurants and the charming shopping arcades leading into the Senso-Ji Temple. The guestrooms are very comfortable, and spacious and the staff is very helpful. Richmond Premier Hotel,  2-7-10 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo. Tel; +81-3-5806-3155

View from our hotel room over the temple grounds with the Skytree in the distance

Traditional Ryokans are also available in the area. Asakusa is easily reached by the Ginza metro line at Asakusa Station.

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Writing and photography by Zia Hansen

A TALE OF 2 CITIES AS DIFFERENT AS NIGHT AND DAY

 

 

Bangkok city center
Bangkok Central Business District by sunset

 

CBD2

Singapore Central Business District by night

 

BANGKOK AND  SINGAPORE: 2 CITIES SO CLOSE AND YET SUCH POLAR OPPOSITES 

Singapore so lush and green, tropical, clean and orderly.  Well planned. Life is easy, although most work hard and efficient.  Houses are coated in fresh paint, in myriads of fresh pastels, crisp and fresh. 

Geylang Singapore

Shophouses offer a wonderful natural architecture for the tropical weather in Singapore

Lotus pond at the Sands in Singapore

Lush lotus pond at the Sands in Singapore

The city is safe, clean and very tropical.  Almost daily tropical rain makes everything exceptionally lush, green, hot, humid and very tropical.  You can leave your purse on the street and still have a good chance of finding it hours later.  It is safe to walk at all times of the day even as a single woman. Mosquitoes are abated monthly, yet the tropical paradise can offer sightings of flying Timorous Beasties. 

Tropical canonball tree in Singapore

Tropical beauty: Canonball tree in Singpore

Pavements are straight, orderly and clean for the most part, no black gum spotting, no spitting’s.  Only the red mud from daily rain tracks into your front door.  Transportation is efficient and cars are limited through permits that are so expensive that most people’s dream of owning personal cars will remain a very distant dream.  Public transportation on the other hand is efficient and well planned.  Air quality is good, except for neighboring countries’ uncontrollable wild fires. Covered roof structures will provide shelter against the almost daily sudden down-pour.  Noise is limited to the roars of Ferraris and Lamborghinis trying to rev-up before the next traffic light: No chance to ever reach the maximum engine possibilities on the small island-or chirping exotic birds and expressive utterings from tropical frogs.  Old traditional shop houses are juxtaposed by new slender mid-or massive high-rise condo towers, HDB government subsidized housing blocks or crisp white or pastel colored carefully restored colonial buildings.

 

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Old colonial shophouses are overpowered by huge HDB apartment buildings at Duxton Hill

Bangkok on the other hand is unruly, and has a dirty urban grit.  Diversity and difference are key differentiators for Bangkok.  The city is unplanned and chaotic, with a large amount of imperfection.  Bangkok forces  and allows people to live without plans.  Chaos and a large degree of randomness is everywhere.  Old wooden shacks are flanked by office buildings or condo towers.

Riverfront in Bangkok  

Old shack houses at the main river, Chao Phraya in Bangkok

Tucked away in side alleys you can find gems and oasis of restaurants and cafes, if only you know how to get there, have a car and a GPS to get there.  It is almost impossible to walk, squashed between cars, Tuk-Tuks, motor bikes, street vendors and utility poles with dangerous infernos of electrical wires hanging overhead, dimly lit or not lit at all at nighttime.  Walkways are uneven, tiles are broken and under seemingly constant repair-in-progress, dirty and haphazard, aligned with the fumes of street food vendors’ temptations of fried fish, bananas, sausages, plastic bags of fresh cut colorful fruits, peppered by exhaust.  The city is grey and trees are far and few in-between.

Erawan shrine
Erawan shrine in Bangkok, cornered by the BTS skytrain

Well-kept street temples and offerings of yellow and fragrant flowers, incense, fresh coconuts and orange juice for good fortune provide a poetic juxtaposition to the dirty urban fabric of unpainted buildings, graffiti littered fences and the double-stacked ugly concrete structures of time saving and quite efficient sky trains.

Offering alter in Bangkok for hungry spirits
Offering street alter in Bangkok for hungry spirits

When in Bangkok try to live close to the BTS or be prepared to spend the next hour or hours grid-locked behind your personal car’s or taxi’s steering wheel.  Personal freedom means having your own car, but sacrificing your time and patience.  Grid-lock is everywhere, seemingly at all times of the day

Bangkok transportation

Gridlock seemingly everywhere and at any time of day in Bangkok

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Juxtaposition between colonial building and new condo towers in Bangkok

Food are the favorite hobby in both cities and joyful sharing of sumptuous meals are favorite pastimes in both cities.  In Singapore Chicken-rice or chili-crab is the all-time favorite national food, in Bangkok crispy fried street food, spicy curry dishes or chili flavored mango salad.  Shopping is becoming a second hobby for both cities.  New malls with ice skating rinks are alluring both Bangkok shoppers to become their new destination and pastime.  Singapore offers almost nonstop shopping, mall after mall after mall seemingly competing with the same high end luxury items.

Offering alter in Bangkok for hungry spirits
Offering alter in Bangkok for hungry spirits

Streetfood in Bangkok

Streetfood in Bangkok

Street signs in Bangkok are an inferno, competing for massage, yoga or snatch-thief warnings. Slippers are scattered in front of buildings indicative of a favorite luxury, taking time for a cheap Thai massage or foot massage treatment on-the-go.  Every Thai I have met is smiling, welcoming and love to enjoy life.  When asking a Thai what he or she loves to do: party is a good answer.  Singaporeans are more reserved and offer less facial expressions.  When asking a Singaporean what their hobby is, the standard answer is: eating and shopping.  Street signs are offering luxury lifestyle or food.

Shopping at Orchard Road in Singapore

Each city has so much to offer in such different ways.  

In Bangkok you need to discover pockets of art and sub-culture dispersed in seemingly unlikely places, hidden in small soi’s but a rich underground culture and appreciation of design and creativity is spreading roots; design and creativity is becoming a national differentiator.  Thailand is becoming the first country in Asia to come up with the idea of establishing design as a national agenda.  Creative freedom as differentiator. In Singapore life is very organized, efficient, a bit uptight, yet you can find pockets of alternative museums and galleries, especially in some of the old colonial military barracks. Art is more controlled, as is life, where only groups of people up to 5 are allowed to gather in the streets.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen