Joanna Hall finds exquisite souvenirs in Tokyo's vibrant temple district.
WHAT Shopping for Japanese souvenirs.
WHERE Nakamise-dori market at Senso-ji in Asakusa, Tokyo.
WHY GO The grand old Buddhist temple of Senso-ji is one of the capital's top sightseeing spots, drawing millions of tourists each year. But, as visitors quickly discover, it remains a living and working temple for the local people of Asakusa.
The reason for Senso-ji's significance today lies in an age-old legend. The story goes that two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the nearby Sumida-Gawa River in 628. Even though they returned the statue to the water, it continued to return to the brothers. Eventually a temple was built in Kannon's honour in 645. Its symbol is an impressive gate called Furai jin-mon, or the Gate of Wind God and Thunder God.
Aside from being a fascinating place to observe Japanese culture, there's another essential reason to visit Senso-ji - shopping. Nakamise-dori Street is a colourful and historic market set in the temple precinct. It stretches 200 metres from the temple's Furai jin-mon outer gate to its second gate, Hozomon.
Nakamise-dori is always a hive of activity and a great place to watch people. A long, wide alley lined with more than 80 small stalls, it has all manner of alluring goodies on sale, from Japanese souvenirs to genuine Edo-style crafts.
Alongside some of the more fun keepsakes, such as geisha key rings and traditional Japanese dolls and paper fans, you'll find a shop selling kimonos, another selling the elaborate wigs to wear with them and another with beautiful hair pins. And further along, in stark contrast, there'll be a stall with an impressive display of some of the latest small gadgets, such as a solar-powered money cat or a mini music speaker for an iPod.
Typical of a Japanese market, there's also plenty of stalls selling traditional fast food such as yakitori: small pieces of chicken meat, liver and vegetables skewered on a bamboo stick and grilled over hot coals. A favourite treat is savoury rice crackers called sembei.
FREE STUFF Admission to Senso-ji is free and the temple area hosts a number of spectacular events throughout the year. Top of the list is Sanja Matsuri, one of Tokyo's three major festivals held each May, famous for a parade that conveys the spirit of the children of Edo. Other festivals include the Asakusa Samba Carnival held in August and Tokyo Jidai Matsuri in November, commemorating Tokyo's history and Edo culture.
BONUS Asakusa is also famous for tempura and Tokyo's largest tempura restaurant is located here, just a few minutes walk from Senso-ji temple. Aoi-Marushin has six floors of table and tatami seating and it's very much a family restaurant. The food is plentiful and reasonably priced - lunch costs from ¥1000 to ¥2000 ($16 to $32). The local specialty is tempura teishoku, an assortment of delicate batter-fried seafood and vegetables.
DETAILS Nakamise and Senso-ji are just steps from Asakusa Station. From central Tokyo, take the JR Yamanote Line to Kanda Station and transfer to the Ginza Subway Line for Asakusa. Depending on your starting point, the fare starts from ¥160 for an adult (about $2.50). The best option if you're sightseeing is a one-day open ticket, which covers all Tokyo Metro lines and costs ¥710 (about $11.40). Senso-ji is open year-round, 6am-5pm (6.30am in October-March). Aoi-Marushin is at 1-4-4 Asakusa, Taito-kuand is open daily.