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According to legend, the temple houses a small statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, found in the Sumida River by two local fishermen in the year 628- but in fact not even the temper priests have ever seen it.
When Edo became the capital of the Tokugawa shogunate, Asakusa began to flourish as an entertainment quarter. In the early 19th century even the kabuki theaters were located here. The Meiji Restoration and the opening of Japan to exotic new Western-style entertainments further enhanced Asakusa’s reputation as Fun city.
The first place in Japan to call itself a “bar” opened in Asakusa in 1880 (and is still doing business); the first movie theater opened here in 1903. Before long, the streets and alleys around the temple were filled with music halls, burlesque theaters, cabarets, gambling dens, and watering holes of every description.
Most of the temple quarter was firebombed to ashes in 1945. But by 1958 the people of the area had raised enough money to rebuild Sensoji and all of the important structures around it. So what if the restorations were in concrete? The original is still there in spirit-and no visitor should neglect it.
Start your exploration from the Asakusa Station, on the Ginza subway line (Tokyo’ first subway). A few steps from the exit is Kaminarimon (“Thunder God Gate”), the main entrance to the temple, hung with a pair of enormous red paper lanterns.
From here, the long, narrow arcade called Nakamise-dori is lined with shops selling rice crackers, spices in gourd-shaped wooden bottles, dolls, toys, fans, children’s kimono, and ornaments and souvenirs of all sorts.
Some of these shops have been operated by the same families for hundreds of years.
The arcade ends at a two-story Pagoda and across the courtyard is the main hall of Sensoji. Visitors should be sure to stop at the huge bronze incense burner in front of the hall, to “bathe” in the smoke-an observance believed to bestow a year’s worth of good health.
The building to the right of the main hall is the Asakusa Jinja, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the three legendary founders-the sanja –of Sensoji. (Buddhism and Shinto get along quite peacefully in Japan, sharing ground and even deities.)
The Sanja Matsuri, held here every year on the third weekend in May, is the biggest most exuberant festival in Tokyo.
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No visitor here should miss the Tokyo National Museum, a complex of four building devoted to Japanese art and archaeology dating back to the prehistoric Jomon and Yayoi periods.
Outstanding among the exhibits are Buddhist sculpture of the tenth-and 11th century Heian era, illustrated narrative scrolls form the 13th century Kamakura period, painting by the great Muromachi artist Sesshu. Also exhibited are woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai, Utamaro and Hiroshige who were Edo-period masters.
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