Asakusa is one of the neighborhoods of Tokyo that’s in virtually every book about the capital city. And why wouldn’t it be? With the impressive Sensoji Temple, obscure sculptures, and attractive Japanese men in loincloths pulling expensive rickshaws, Asakusa has a little bit of something for everyone. Here’s our pick of 10 free things to do in Asakusa to make the most of your time there.
1. Take a peek from the top
Why pay money to go to the top of Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Sky Tree when you can see it all for free from the eighth floor of the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center? While the place isn’t exactly teeming with information about Asakusa, it is a lovely building that has a free veranda offering awesome views of Sensoji Temple, Nakamise-dori, and the Tokyo skyline.
2. Stroll down Nakamise-dori
Nakamise Dori is the 250-meter long shopping street between the Kaminarimon and Hozomon gates of Sensoji Temple. Follow the signs to the temple and you won’t have any trouble spotting it. The narrow street is lined with close to 100 shops that sell everything from snacks to souvenirs and seriously fancy chopsticks. It can be crowded, but is a great place to do some browsing and get gift ideas.
Pro tip: Book a local guide to show you the best spots in Asakusa.
3. Enjoy the free show while vendors make ningyoyaki
Ningyoyaki, or Japanese snack cakes, are tasty local treats. They are made by pouring batter into intricate molds (ranging from fish and lantern-shaped to more themed Hello Kitty molds). In the center is usually a nice dollop of sweet red bean paste. It’s fun just to watch, but if you’re feeling flush, you can buy a few to try.
(There are actually plenty of snacks to satiate your sweet tooth in Asakusa—like delicious melon pan. Find out more about them in our Asakusa sweets guide!)
4. Get your fortune told (for 100 yen)
Okay, so it’s not exactly, free, but it sure is cheap. Omikuji are strips of paper that purport to tell your future. After you “donate” 100 yen into the box near the omikuji station at Sensoji Temple, you are able to draw a stick that corresponds to your fortune slip. If you get a good fortune, keep it. If you get a bad fortune, you can tie it on the nearby pole, tree, or rack to make sure it doesn’t follow you back home.
5. Get “purified” outside Sensoji Temple
Holy smokes! Now that you’ve checked out your future forecast (or had a look at the omikuji station anyway), it’s time for a spot of purification. If you’re facing Sensoji Temple, you’ll see a dragon-themed fountain and large pot emitting smoke. Those are to purify yourself. They are also fun to take pictures of.
The smoke is easy to purify yourself with—just gently waft it towards you and copy what everyone else is doing. The water is a bit more tricky. You can probably get away with just winging it and copying what everyone else is doing here too. The proper format is to take the ladle and wash your left hand, then wash your right hand, wash the ladle, and put it back.
6. Flip 5 yen into the temple box
During the busy seasons at Sensoji (basically any time in the evening, on a weekend, or a national holiday), it’s fun to be jostled to the front of throngs of people to toss a 5-yen coin into the collection box. Afterwards, you clap and pray. As far as cultural events go, they don’t get cheaper than this.
7. See the rest of Sensoji
There’s more to Sensoji than the smoke and shopping street, and before leaving we recommend you take a full turn of the temple grounds. Among other nifty sights, bells, Tokyo’s oldest stone bridge and an unrelated shrine await. Have a look at our dedicated Sensoji guide for more information on these and other cool features.
8. Giggle at the golden turd
You can’t leave Asakusa without a glance at the landmark “golden turd”, officially known as the flame atop the headquarters of Asahi (yep, the beer people). Unofficial word on the street is they had one too many of their own brew before coming up with the sculpture. You’ll notice that the building next door resembles a beer mug. Also golden.
9. Check out the Sanja Festival (in May)
If you happen to be in Tokyo in May, you can attend one of the city’s three major Shinto festivals. The Sanja Matsuri is a wild celebration that involves tattooed men jousting with portable shrines in the streets of Asakusa. Oh, and two million spectators. You’ve got to see it to believe it.
10. Sample department-store food
If you’re feeling a bit peckish after your tour of Asakusa, Matsuya is a good place to head in search of snacks. This swanky department store, like most other department stores, sometimes offers free samples of sweets and other food—and is an interesting place to wander around, besides. They’re known for their Japanese confectionery, which comes with a local twist.
If you want to squeeze some other areas into your trip to Asakusa, you might enjoy this suggested itinerary for a walking tour that takes in Ginza and more. And if you’re looking for places to stay, this guide to Asakusa accommodation is a good place to start.
Looking for fun things to do in other parts of Tokyo? Here’s a guide to free activities in Harajuku, and another one dedicated to free things to do in Shibuya. You can also check out our epic list of 101 things to do in Tokyo.
This post was updated by Carey Finn in March 2017.