by Bob Samborski
Any visit to Tokyo should include a cruise on the Sumida River, a leisurely endeavor that’s a welcome respite from the city’s otherwise manic pace. The river provides a very different perspective on Tokyo as it flows through the heart of this huge metropolis to its very soul — the ancient enclave of Asakusa.
Several cruises begin from the Hinode Pier (metro station: Hammamatsucho on the Japan Rail (or JR) line, between Tokyo and Shinagawa stations). The pleasant ten-minute walk from the station to the pier is well signed. You can choose from excursions to the Museum of Maritime Science, the Shinagawa Aquarium, and Tokyo “Big Sight” — Japan’s largest exhibition and convention center, high-tech entertainment area, and art gallery in one stunning architectural venue. But for my yen, the Asakusa option offers a most unique experience.
Buy a one-way ticket (about US $12) and return later from upriver via the extensive subway system. Pick up a river map that depicts the fifteen very different bridges that bind the city together at key junctions. Each bridge is unique, with its own story and personality, several in bright reds, blues, and yellows. The construction and style of each varies greatly, ranging from sturdily industrial, to graceful arcs, to light-and-airy suspensions.
You’ll get a great close-up of each as you pass underneath, past the world-renowned Tsukiji Fish Market (its organized chaos an absolute marvel to the Western eye), past intersecting canals lined with traditional wooden river craft, past gleaming office buildings and luxurious high rises. Along the way, various forms of transport coexist on the banks in an efficient jumble. Traffic on elevated highways, subway trains, small cargo ships and pleasure craft play their roles in a complex urban ballet. The Sumida is a simple, straightforward pathway, a watery safety zone surrounded by the relentless human effort to cram more of everything into limited space.
After a thirty-minute trip, you arrive in a timeless place.
An entertainment area since the seventeenth century, Asakusa conjures up an ancient vision. Cross the street from the dock and proceed for a few blocks until you see the Senso-ji Temple scene begin to unfold on your right. The Kaminari-mon (or “Thunder Gate”) with its immense red lantern serves as a traditional gathering place and a gateway to a bustling arcade of shops, stalls, and stands. Known as Nakamise Street, the covered arcade links the gate with the temple and is crammed with all manner of food, clothes, and curiosities. It’s a great place to get those obligatory souvenirs and gifts in a very expensive city. Prices here are about as reasonable as Tokyo gets.
Following the arcade straight through to its end delivers you to the large portal of the Senso-ji Temple, one of Japan’s largest Buddhist temples and the oldest in Tokyo. Dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, it is the hub of an intriguing complex of buildings, gardens and smaller shrines.
Complete your pilgrimage by selecting a nearby restaurant for lunch. Smaller traditional eateries specialize in a particular style of cooking — choose from tempura (lightly battered shrimp or vegetables), soba and udon (noodles), tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlets), sushi, or yakitori grills. Don’t worry about not being able to communicate — the proprietors’ lack of English is more than offset by their graciousness and enthusiasm. Pointing and smiling will carry the day.
Caught in Tokyo’s infamous rush hour? The Asahi Brewing Company complex is just across the river. Have a tall cold one in the tasting room and wait it out. It’s easy to kill time in Asakusa.
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