If you have the misfortune of visiting Tokyo for only a few days, you’ll find it hard to decide where to spend your time in a city that has so many amazing things to see and do. A good way to get a sense of the traditional, slower-paced Tokyo, as well as the modern, fast-paced Tokyo in a single day is to venture to the northeastern district of Asakusa in the morning, with its temples and buildings dating back to the 1950s (Tokyo was essentially leveled in the WWII fire-bombings, so the 50s is considered old for Tokyo architecture). Then take a cruise south on the Sumida river, which will take you under about a dozen architecturally distinct bridges. The cruise ends on the man-made island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, which offers endless attractions for modern shopping and hi-tech fun, and even a sandy beach. At the end of the day (or night), head back to the mainland on the Yurikamone line, which does an entirely gratuitous 360° loop as it crosses the river, giving you a panoramic view of eastern Tokyo.
Asakusa is a well known part of Tokyo, and many others have written about it, so I’ll just give you a summary from Wikipedia:
Asakusa is… most famous for the Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon. There are several more temples in Asakusa, as well as various festivals… For most of the twentieth century, Asakusa was the major entertainment district in Tokyo… In its role as a pleasure district, it has now been surpassed by Shinjuku and other colorful areas of the city… It is central to the area colloquially referred to as Shitamachi (not an official designation), which literally means “low city,” referring to the low elevation of this old part of Tokyo, on the banks of the Sumida River. As the name suggests, the area has a less frenetic and more traditionally Japanese atmosphere than some other neighborhoods of Tokyo… In keeping with a peculiarly Tokyo tradition, Asakusa hosts a major cluster of domestic kitchenware stores on Kappabashi-dori, which is visited by many Tokyoites for essential supplies. Next to the Sensō-ji temple grounds is a small carnival complex with rides, booths, and games, called Hanayashiki. The neighborhood theaters specialize in showing classic Japanese films, as many of the tourists are elderly Japanese.
Asakusa is a part of Tokyo whose glory days are behind it, but still has a lot of old city charm, and continues to draw tourists as well as Tokyoites looking to spend some time away from the fast-paced modernity that defines most of Tokyo. If you visit during cherry blossom season, the park along the river will be packed with people having picnics to celebrate the start of Spring.
The river cruise boats depart from the Asakusa wharf. Don’t be shy about asking someone where it is. Plenty of people speak English, and if you’re not too far from it, someone may even walk you right to it. There are multiple destinations so make sure you’re getting on a boat headed to Odaiba! The cruise lasts about an hour, and takes you along the eastern side of Tokyo, so you’ll see a lot of interesting buildings and bridges. japan-guide.com has a helpful overview.
Odaiba is a cross between Disney World and Las Vegas: it has all the lights and dazzle of both, but is more family-friendly than Vegas, and has a lot more fun activities for adults than Disney World. Japan-guide.com has a good overview of Odaiba’s multitude of attractions. It was a frequent destination for the boys and I when we lived there in 2007. From where we lived in Shinagawa, Odaiba was only one stop away on the Rinkai Line. The boys especially loved the Toyota MegaWeb complex, the Palette Town video arcade, and the parks and beaches.
The Yurikamone Line is an attraction itself, and is definitely the way you should depart Odaiba. It’s fully automated – there is no one driving the train – and the tracks run in a loop on the eastern edge of the river, giving you a spectacular view of the city.
I’ve visited Odaiba about 20 times, and I still haven’t seen all of it (although that’s partly because the boys always wanted to do the same things every time we went). I’m recommending it for just a half day visit though, because it really will give you sensory overload. It’s worth a second half-day visit if you have time.
This post includes pictures from 3 visits to Japan, in 1999, 2004, and 2007.
Originally published April 30, 2009