Asakusa and Ueno – why everyone should visit Northern Tokyo
When people think of Tokyo they think of a megalopolis of modern skyscrapers. That’s a pretty accurate description of most of Tokyo. In fact – between earthquakes, fire, and war – very little of pre-World War II Tokyo survives. The exception to this are the northern neighborhoods of Asakusa and Ueno. It’s a part of town where you can take a traditional rickshaw ride, walk through streets of Edo-style architecture (little wooden shops and houses), and where you can explore temples, shrines and museums as well as one of Tokyo’s largest parks (Ueno Park). The area also has notable sites such as the Sensoji Temple (Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple) and the Tokyo Skytree (the tallest tower in the World).
Planning our itinerary in Asakusa and Ueno
We stayed 4 nights (3 full days) in Asakusa (at the excellent Gate Hotel). The first day we had a Free Volunteer Guide introduce us to Tokyo, the second day we walked to the nearby Tokyo Skytree (for the highest views in the city), Ueno Park (covered further below), and visited the Sensoji Temple at night. The third day we took a day trip to the town of Nikko (2 hours away. The Tobu rail line in Asakusa makes it the perfect base to visit this UNESCO site)
The highlights in Asakusa
This is Tokyo’s most sacred and spectacular temple. But there’s much more than just the temple itself: the temple is surrounded by gardens, shrines, as well as a little street (Nakamise-Dori) which is one of the top places to pick up souvenirs in Tokyo. The temple area is worth visiting not just in the day but also at night when its lanterns are lit up.
– Founded in 628, Sensoji Temple is the oldest temple in Tokyo.
– Around 30 million visitors from Japan and abroad visit the temple every year.
– Many people believe that the Asakusa Kannon deity enshrined here has the ability to bestow benefits on earth.
– It was at the center of Edo culture in Tokyo. “Edo” is what Tokyo was called and the Edo period (1603–1867) refers to the final period of traditional Japan under which it was ruled by the Shoguns from what is today Tokyo.
Related: This post covers how we managed to get a free Volunteer guide to show us around Tokyo (including Asakusa)
Sensoji temple at night
Nakamise Dori is the little street that lines the entry way to the temple (see photo below – taken from the Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center). It is always packed with people buying souvenirs or snacks.
The neighborhood surrounding the Sensoji temple is also worth exploring. You’ll see lots of small restaurants and shops. You can also get a rickshaw ride from one of these guys.
A pleasant 15-20 minute walk from the Sensoji Temple, crossing the Sumida River, is the Tokyo Skytree. It is the highest tower in the world with a full height of 634 meters (by comparison, the CN Tower in Toronto is the 3rd highest tower at 553 m). Tourists can go to 2 observation decks, one at 350m and another at 450m). The views are spectacular – you can even see Mt. Fuji far in the distance. Seeing Tokyo from this perspective you can see how incredibly huge the city is. It gets a lot of people – I really recommended that you buy a “skip the line”ticket.
Below: Organized Tours/activities in Asakusa
The highlights in Ueno
3 metro stops from Asakusa, Ueno Park has some of Tokyo’s top sites. At the bottom end of the park you’ll see temples, shrines, the Ueno Zoo (Tokyo’s best and oldest zoo), and a large pond that attracts thousands of migrating birds. That’s what we covered in the 3 hours spent walking the grounds of this beautiful park. Further up in the park, you’ll find four of Tokyo’s best museums: the Tokyo National Museum, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, and the National Museum of Nature and Science. Ueno Park is the equivalent to Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. You could easily spend days visiting the sites in this park alone. Besides all these highlights, it is a pleasant place to walk and it attracts tons of locals especially during autumn and in the spring when the cherry blossoms come out.
After 3 full days in Asakusa and Ueno, we spent the next few days in Shinjuku (the downtown heart of Tokyo).
Related: “Hot or Not?” Visiting Shinjuku and the red light district of Kabukichō
But if you asked us what our favorite part of the city was we’ll tell you it was Asakusa and Ueno.
Below: Views from the Terrace of The Gate Hotel. Had a great stay here, totally recommend it for anyone visiting the Asakusa area.
Have you been to Tokyo? What’s your favorite neighborhood?
Related: Why Nara was my favorite place in Japan
Related: Going Hello Kitty Crazy at the Keio Plaza Hotel (Tokyo)
Related: The Hypothetically Perfect Day in Bangkok
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Aha, OK then. I thought that you shoot them like they are published. I’m using Photoshop and recently Nik Collection but not always. I’ll have to explore possibilities more deeply. Thanks for answer. 🙂
A little editing always good, also adding a watermark at the same time 🙂
Actually you do not lose any time if you travel with night bus as we did. You have a full day of sightseeing then catch a bus late on evening and arrive in the next city early in the morning next day. We have manage to rest enough during night in the bus but I agree that it’s not for everyone.
You do not need two capsules, there is Tokyo Kiba Hotel, they have capsule for couples, we have been there. 🙂 It’s not recommended for long stay but for one night stay it’s just fine. I use Airbnb a lot but in 2013 offer was very weak, I hope it’s better now.
Tokyo Kiba Hotel: I’m putting the link here. They look like dog kennels 🙂
No, actually looks very nice and I didn’t know that they had capsules for couples.
You didn’t feel exhausted sleeping on the bus the way you did? We never really sleep on planes and although the bus as you describe it sounds good I’m sure you don’t get a full 8 hours sleep. Unless you’re one of those rotten people who can sleep anywhere, anytime 🙂 . If I was younger and travelling solo – and watching my money – it sounds like a fantastic idea though. Save on lodging and transportation.
Airbnb all over the place now and you can get decent prices. We’ve averaged about $100 CAD (about $75 US) most of the time.
haha 😀 no, it’s actually even better than it looks on booking.com images. I wrote a bit about that in my blog but can’t post URL here. Sorry, the blog is only on Croatian.
Yes, we can sleep anywhere. 🙂 My wife is a joke, she just need a seat bellow and minute of time and she’s gone. Same thing anywhere, bus, plane, car… I’m not so fast but don’t have any problem with sleeping during transportation. Well sorry, then I assume the night bus is not for you.
Found it on your blog: http://tripologia.com/putopisi/tokyo-prvi-dio-nihon-de-kangei/ Google isn’t that good at translating Croatian but it is understandable and I think a good read.
I actually think it’s a great way for saving money. If someone is on a fast 10 day (or so) trip and wants to see as much as possible, why not? But yes, it helps if you can sleep on buses.
No problem, it’s always nice to read your posts and look at beautiful images you have. 🙂 Let me ask you something. What kind of camera you use for shooting? On one of images above I can see Nikon around your neck and it looks just like my camera, maybe it is exactly the same. You making great photos but probably not with that camera, or I’m doing something wrong.
Hi Gile. I have that Nikon, Lissette has a Cannon Powershot. The Cannon is the better camera but whatever camera you have you need an editing program to bring out the colors. Each photo we post has been edited to bring out the natural color and light that (unless you have great lighting conditions) gets lost when taking a photo.
Great article and beautiful photos, as always! I love Japan, it was beautiful experience visiting it and it’s always nice to remember it. Asakusa is good starting point to exploring Tokyo, we have also start from there. Senso-ji Temple is very photogenic and shooting it at sunset will make your images looks great that’s for sure, even I manage to take some nice photos there. 🙂
Have you try to sleep in capsule hotel? We take it for one night, just to try that and it was…hm…interesting. It was very quiet there and very clean. Maybe someone will find common showers uncomfortable, we don’t have them here in Europe but it’s common practice in Japan. It looks like in army, 10 showers one by the other without anything between them.
We have also realize that JR pass is too expensive to us and travel through Japan with bus. Maybe you heard for Willer Bus Pass, it cost 10.000 JPY for 3 days and it cover our trip Tokyo-Hiroshima-Kyoto-Tokyo. Buses are very comfortable, there is lot of space between seats which are reclining so it looks almost like laying in bed, there is even a small cover over the head like umbrella so you have more privacy. We was taking night buses, good thing is that you save money that way because you don’t need hotel for that night and also save time you would spend for traveling during the day. If someone seeking for low budget travel across Japan I always recommend Willer Bus Pass.
Japan was great experience, it’s very clean and people are very polite. That was even more stand out because we have arrive in Japan from China and after Japan gone back to China. differences between these two countries are huge.
Always love your comments Gile, you’re full of information.
I never heard of the Willer Bus pass. Great recommendation because you are absolutely right about the JR pass being expensive. We did a 6 day trip through Central Honshu and weighed the cost of JR Pass vs just paying tickets as we went – and in the end the cost was basically the same. Darn expensive. You’re the first person who hasn’t said “buy the JR pass!”. Great tip for someone on a budget, that’s a big price difference. The only thing you lose is time but for someone who’s in no rush it’s fine.
No, have not tried a capsule hotel (although I know about them). I probably would if on my own but Lissette doesn’t like shared bathroom facilities, plus we’d need 2 so in the end the cost would be the same as an Airbnb apartment. [for readers: Capsule hotels in the US 30-50 range, a bed in a dorm around $30, basic Airbnb around $75 US, same for a basic hotel room].
What we will always remember about Japan are the incredibly helpful and polite people. Remarkable. If anyone is not polite – well, chances are that they’re not Japanese. You’e absolutely correct about the differences between Japanese and Chinese (as well as Koreans – this you know being Croatian 🙂 ).
I love that you’re not a slave to Instagram, and that your photos show what it’s ‘really’ like in all the places you explore, it makes the places seem so much more alive and makes me want to visit all the more! We’ve never been to Japan but lately I’ve been considering it for the first time as we’re getting fed up of the same old islands and palm trees of SE Asia. Love the fortune idea, and I don’t think you should worry too much about yours….consider the “stop starting a trip” as a suggestion you spend more time right where you are, in Japan 🙂
Thanks Heather! 🙂 What’s your Instagram beef? I honestly hate social media and the idea to start from scratch on another medium – another place where they change the rules on you overnight – didn’t appeal.
We’ll go back to SE Asia one day when we need to save money but figured we HAD to see Japan now given the opportunity. I very much doubt that we will ever be back.
Thanks for taking the time to comment!
Instagram is ok, it just irritates me that so many users plaster it with strategically placed boobs, bikinis and pouts, whilst trying to ‘sell’ a destination, that leads the world to believe that’s what we should all strive for. You know, the usual sex sells stuff. Maybe I’m just feeling cranky at the moment 😉 Anyhow, it’s good to see more of the behind the scenes shots, at least then I’ll know what to expect when visiting somewhere new, rather than being disappointed that the aforementioned boobs and bikinis are sadly lacking from my real life experience. I’m waffling, so I’ll shut up. Awesome post 🙂
Yes, we’d sign up for the boobs and bikinis but you know that’s never what you see, right? Just fat middle aged people with warts on their faces.
Spanky always says the same thing, she complains that people crowd her or bump into her and “that’s it’s not like she’s Cindy Crawford or something. Why can it never be Cindy Crawford?”.
And in a plane I’m never next to a hot babe in a mini skirt who smells good, I always have smelly guy who dresses like a bum.
Reality sucks! 🙂
Your photos were beautiful and gave me a real sense of place and your maps helped orient me since I’ve never been to Tokyo. It’s definitely on our wish list but as I read through your comments, I have to agree that the cost has been the biggest factor for Japan being lower on the list. Your opening paragraph was totally correct as I always picture Tokyo as a gleaming, super-modern city and it’s fascinating to think of these ancient neighborhoods that go back for centuries. Loved your fortune – the “leave or stay” could be true but that “hopeless” must have had you both howling!
You’re right about the cost Anita. We’ve always wanted to come Japan and are happy to be here. We knew it was more expensive then our usual destinations and wanted to visit it while still working…but it’s not a place we would most likely come back to just for that reason. I would suggest that it is worth seeing though and if I would recommend anything it would be to just stay a few weeks and integrate yourself in 1 or 2 places as opposed to doing a lot of travelling (the cost of train travel high). Doesn’t help either if you get a cheap flight, we flew here on Turkish Airlines for $750 CAD (that’s about $550 US) return from Madrid. That’s a good deal.
Paul and Carole
Great insight and useful information for visiting Tokyo. Must admit that part of the world has never been somewhere that has been high on the list of to do’s, however Japan is really starting to appeal. Laughing (though shouldn’t!) that you had bad fortune 59, good job you aren’t the insecure type!! A friend had a bad fortune too and tried again but it got even worse so I would stick with what you have got!
Great post, will share and Pin for future reference.
Thanks Carole. I’ve never believed in that stuff, for me was just for fun.
Do you actually think it could be worse? 😉
I spent 3 nights in Kyoto and 4 in Osaka. Did a side trip to Nara. If I went back I’d go to Tokyo but the small rooms put me off and I would only go if I got a cheap flight and wouldn’t stay long. Just a 4 or 5 day stopover to somewhere else.
I find Japanese to be rather inward looking people. They are friendly but tend to stick to Japanese groups.
I like the food and beer but it can be found all over the world so I have no great desire to go there unless circumstances fell into place.
I like Korean food and beer too but likewise would want a cheap flight to make the effort to go. Never been.
Interesting. Yes, I can see some of that.
Korea doesn’t hold much appeal for me. Nor China honestly.
We had a layover in Tokyo and spent a few hours walking around Ueno (we didn’t go to the park though). Ever since, we’ve been wanting to go back to Japan. Looking forward to reading more about your stay!
Thanks Lydia. Ueno was actually the first place we saw as well – when coming in from Narita airport by it’s the hub of Northern Tokyo (from there we took the taxi to Asakusa which was just a 10 minute ride). It’s all a little bit mind-blowing when you first step in Tokyo, isn’t it?
Love that first photo! It’s a totally different experience seeing Sensoji Temple at night vs the day. Too bad about that fortune lol!
Yes, I think even more spectacular at night!
I was paying $70 a night for tiny 3 star rooms. This was a decade ago. With convenience stores everyone (almost every 50m in parts of Osaka) you can eat cheap. Small restaurants had cheap chicken curries but beef is very expensive.
Japanese people are friendly but it’s hard to become friends with them beyond a superficial level.
Temples are great and Japanese beers are the best in Asia.
You’re right about the pricing Tom, it’s not cheap and we can’t afford to be regular visitors to Japan. We’ve stayed in a few hotels already that have almost been the size of closets. I’m 5’11 and hard to get up at times without knocking my head into something…
Tony wrote a similar comment about the friendliness of the people which I responded to in detail. You might want a look at that. I think you’re right though, but maybe not so much because of culture but rather language.
How long did you spend in Japan? Did you enjoy it?
We’re enjoying it but I think this trip will be a one time thing, mostly because of the cost. We’ve seen lots, but I really think Japan is a cultural destination. That’s what brought us here and in the end it’s what will stay with us after we leave.
Totally agree with you on the pricing. Super expensive. We stayed 2 weeks and spent ahem..a good chunk of money since l was not a big fan of the Bento boxes. I don’t think we had a lunch or dinner that was less than 60 euros. For breakfast, l had the 7-11 bread rolls made with milk. Those are fabulous. I was going to do a how much did it cost post to round out the Japan blog posts, but stopped after seeing some receipts 🙂 . It would have to be another really cheap ticket to make it possible again l think truthfully. If you want to see how the Japanese let their hair down, go for a late dinner. Men in suits knocking back sake and beer and my goodness..so frigging LOUD! We saw it often..quite eye opening and we actually enjoyed seeing that. Quite the contrast from the nice, quiet, respectable men you see during the day. They roll out of the restaurants super drunk and light cigarettes as soon as they step out. They need to let off steam, and boy do they ever.. I can only imagine what it must be like in those pachinko parlors :-).
I’ve read these posts that go along the line of “Japan is cheaper than you might think”.
Well…sure you can stay in a dorm, couchsurf, buy those cup-a-noodles, take buses (yes, turn that 2 1/2 hr Tokyo – Kyoto train ride into a 10 hr ordeal). Honestly, you can be a bum anywhere and sleep on a park bench as well when you’re at it, right? But the thing is – is that how you want to travel?
We’re careful: we go to the supermarket and cook our food, buy our alcohol at 7/11 (no going out to bars), and the few times we’ve gone out to eat it’ll be at a cheap raman place. The truth is that you don’t get much value for your money if you’re used to travelling to other places. I find portions small for one thing. But the usual little things: $3 for a one way bus/subway ride (local), $5 for an ice cream on a hot day, $6 for a beer (these listed in Canadian dollars). Never mind the cost of a long-distance train ticket – $190 Canadian ($140 US) for that 2 1/2 hr Tokyo-Kyoto train ticket [PS. Unless you do a lot of travelling, that 1 week JR pass doesn’t really save you money. I did a comparison when we did our 6 day Central Honshu trip).
If you’re just off the plane from Canada or the US maybe these costs don’t seem unreasonable. But for us having travelled full-time the last 2 years and as you know (having lived in Spain for a few years) it’s expensive compared to most places. It’s the one place where we feel a little poor, which is not always a nice feeling. When we travel we like to go out, eat, drink etc…as much as we enjoy Japan we feel like dirty backpackers.
So the first thing I do when we land in Serbia is order 1 big-ass steak with a bottle of wine. Then shovel down a big-ass piece of cake with a large glass of Grand Marnier 🙂
Sand In My Suitcase
Not having visited Japan, we don’t much about the country, or Tokyo – didn’t know, for example, that northern Tokyo is where you can see a more traditional way of Japanese life on display (wooden houses, rickshaw rides, etc.). We’d like that :-). Perhaps some day…
Lots of very nice boutique hotels as well Janice! (I know you guys like the luxury). Japan is an experience unlike any other.
Agnieszka (Wandering Owls)
Love the contrast between the skyscrapers and the traditional architecture! I wanted to visit Tokyo ever since I fell in love with Haruki Murakami’s books, so jealous of you guys 🙂
Thank you Agnieszka. I hope you make it here one day 🙂
Very nice intro to Tokyo, very well ‘supported’ by the great (as always) photos. The overall generalised urban image of Japan for most ,(especially Tokyo , but excepting specific city gems like Kyoto) is rather a messy one – generally faceless, characterless modern buildings, webs of external electric wires and neon signs – more a reflection of “Blade Runner” urbanism than anything else – so it was great to learn about and see these wonderful ‘outposts’ of Japanese culture, history , religion and architecture in the overall teeming metropolis. Japan is (with a very few other countries) the most homogenous nation on earth. No multiculturalism or immigration here. The only ‘ethnic’ group in the country are reportedly the Koreans – a few hundred thousand of them – who have been there for 600 years plus, and who are still not integrated into the Society at large …
The Japanese attention to detail, beauty, presentation and appearances is legendary. Their culture (possible exception made for the “punk, whacky youth orientated sub-culture ?) is renowned as being the most refined, structured and formalized anywhere. And likewise their professional and personal human relationships are also strongly defined, channeled, formalized and structured as well – the hugely important professional and social hierarchy for example; the classic reputation that the Japanese have for never being able to directly say “NO” on a wide range of topics and subjects. Their social culture is (in comparison to ours) “soft”, delicate, pacific, considerate, polite, courteous – one where many unpleasant aspects of the human character and spirit have been buried (controlled?) under layers of courtesy, ethics, and politeness , – and often leading to the classic reputation that the Japanese have for being ‘inscrutable’ .
A great many travellers to Japan report on the warm welcomes and friendliness of the locals, but at the same time, the near impossibility, the difficulty of forming relaxed non-formalised relationships with the Japanese themselves . All to say, is it possible that the warm welcome, the great friendliness you have experienced in Japan, just be part of their structured social approach to foreigners and guests – a normal and classic ‘duty’ , like the exchanging of gifts, rather than a real, spontaneous, personalised individual reaction ? As so often said, “Beauty is skin deep” .
Could the warm welcomes and friendliness be likewise ? Just a question.
Great analysis Tony.
– Between the historical buildings and temples on one extreme, and the modern skyscrapers on the other, the average Japanese town or city is just as you say “generally faceless, characterless modern buildings”. Very, very clean but unremarkable.
– detail, presentation and appearance. You’re spot on. You can buy vegetables and meat at the local convenience store (like 7/11) and they be sold in beautiful vacuum wrapped packaging and bright colours. Everything is cute, colorful and shiny. Bento meals, the pre-packaged meals that you can buy everywhere (like the tv dinners we used to have in the west) are affordable (best thing to buy if trying to save money) and fresh (I’m told nothing is allowed to sit on the shelf more than 2 hours). Visiting a large grocery store (I buy groceries at Yodobashi here in Kyoto) is quite the experience, a marketer’s dream because packaging so different than anywhere.
– Their culture “delicate, pacific, considerate, polite, courteous – one where many unpleasant aspects of the human character and spirit have been buried (controlled?) under layers of courtesy, ethics, and politeness”. Very true. I think, in such a densely populated place, that this civility makes everything work. I don’t like being around a lot of people but we’ve both found the crowds easy because we don’t have the bumping and jostling you see in the west. It might be cliche to say this, but it rubs off on you – I’ve found myself calmer and in turn more polite here. You don’t have to fight for everything. As far as organization: it’s unparalleled anywhere. When you arrive anywhere there’s a tourist information office right in front of you. If in the train station, there’s a separate train information office where they’ll help you with all your travel questions. Metro stations are the same. You’ll find toilets everywhere, vending machines on metro/train platforms. They even have the Germans beat in that respect.
– As far as the possibility of forming relaxed non-formal relationships. We’ve talked about that among ourselves – I think it would be hard to “integrate” here, partly because of culture but mostly because of language. Although many Japanese speak some basic English I don’t know how far past that you can get. But as travellers, the friendliness and hospitality makes travel easy and pleasant. We’ve had people come out of nowhere and point something out or give us a map. It’s like they’re looking out for you and want to make sure that you have the best experience possible in their country. I mentioned the tourist information – we’ve gone in there and the people are not just there to help you and get rid of you the fastest possible, we’ve a few times been in there 10 minutes talking to the person because they want to know more about us, where we are from etc. Then there are the free guides in places that we encountered like Tokyo, Matsumoto and Kanazawa. They don’t have to do this but again I think they’re proud and want you to experience the very best of their country. Is it fake? I think it is an extension of pride and their culture of courtesy and politeness. Again, we’re not looking to live here – but as travellers it makes Japan a very pleasant place to visit.
Thanks Tony, great stuff.
Much as l loved Asakusa, and l did, l think my favorite area was Ikebukuro where we stayed. It was ginormous like others, but also a lot calmer and l loved being with the reisdents and we were lucky enough to stay in an actual flat with the low ceilings, sliding doors etc. that made it feel really nice. The more l travel, the more l realize l am not made for the severely congested places. OMG! I had a great laugh with your fortune. Haha! Good thing you’re not suicidal indeed..I don’t know how they can be so blunt..haha! You are hopeless!. I wish l could remember the name of the Udon place right near the Sensoji. Great prices, most awesome one we had the whole time and came with the tempura shrimp. One of those little streets to the right of the temple..still cracking up at your fortune!!!! Maybe it’s jet lag. Off to sleep.
We were taken to a great sushi place right across from the hotel which was also quite reasonable: Sushizanmai. I’m told they’re a chain.
Glad the fortune gave you a laugh. Gee, what do you do with a fortune like that except maybe roll up into a ball in the corner…
Sarah (JetSetting Fools)
Thanks for the introduction! Japan has steadily been creeping up on our list of places we’d like to go next…your pictures are giving it a boost 😉 I’m sure you’ll cover it in a later post, but I’m very curious about the cost of living there.
I’ll cover it – but it’s certainly not cheap. The small apartment we have in Kyoto costs us the equivalent of $1600 US/month which is about the same as Airbnb apartments we came across (but we chose this apartment because we weren’t very impressed by Airbnb selections here). We’ve been careful not to spend much money on meals by eating Bento boxes (pre-made meals), lots of noodle soups, and drinking at home. Trains expensive and just like the Eurail pass, the JR pass is worth it if you do a lot of travelling in a short period. But however you calculate it it is still quite expensive. Certainly not the Balkans! 🙂
Good photos as per usual. Has Japan met your expectations thus far?
Thanks Tom. Honestly, I cannot say anything bad – the Japanese are incredible hosts, some of the most welcoming and friendly that we have met anywhere. We’ll have some photos coming up off some of the weird and wacky, the pop-culture aspect is one of the reasons we were so keen on coming to Japan. Geography is pretty, food good. Enjoying Japan. But above all, it’s the people who have just been incredible. It would just break my heart to say anything even remotely negative.