Asakusa is a lively neighborhood in the northeast part of Tokyo. It is home to the Senso-ji, the oldest Buddhist temple in the Japanese capital. An area right behind the temple is also well known as Tokyo's oldest geisha house, still functioning with more than 40 geishas who entertain visitors. The neighborhood is a must-visit destination for both Japanese and foreign guests.
As you go through Kaminarimon, the gate with a big red lantern, Nakamise-dori, the street leading up to the temple, is filled with stores that offer one-stop shopping. You can find almost anything on this stretch, from a silk robe to rice crackers. Asakusa is one of the most foreigner-friendly neighborhoods in Tokyo -- locals are casual and open. Enjoy meeting them and exploring this cool part of Tokyo.
DO: Walk around Senso-ji. Enjoy walking around the temple. There is a small Japanese garden right next to the temple. There are some old Japanese restaurants behind the temple. An association for local geisha is also housed in that area, where geisha often receive their routine lessons in singing and dancing. If you are lucky, you may run into one of them.
DO: Bow when you want to thank people. You can say "thank you" in English or "domo arigato," meaning "thank you" in Japanese. But whichever language you speak, tilt your head a little bit forward to show a gesture of appreciation.
DO: Visit the area before late afternoon. Many stores close around 6 p.m. after the temple closes its main hall. You can still visit the property and walk around the temple but you will get to see more earlier in the day. Stores usually open around 10 a.m., so plan a half day trip to the area. Or, if you explore the temple area by 5 p.m., plan to have an early dinner in the neighborhood because there are many good restaurants that serve Japanese favorites such as sukiyaki and tempura.
DO: Enjoy food samples. Many stores along Nakamise-dori sell traditional Japanese snacks such as rice crackers. They often have a basket of samples. Try them but do not be piggish. A general rule is to take a single piece. After you sample the food, just bow slightly and leave the store if you do not purchase something.
DO: Take a walk along the Sumida River. Once Tokyo's major commercial waterway, the Sumida still plays host to boats including coal barges and dinner cruises. If you visit the area in spring, you can enjoy gorgeous blossoming cherry trees and people having parties under the trees along the river bank.
Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto
DO NOT: Take photos of geisha (or anyone) without asking. You do not have to talk to them but you can signal (such as pointing to your camera and ask "OK?") and see whether they do not mind being photographed.
DO NOT: Assume people speak English. Compared with Singapore and Hong Kong, fewer people are able to converse in English here. They may greet you and exchange a few words but that could be the extent of the conversation. If you experience this, do not get frustrated. Also, speaking more slowly or louder does not necessarily help people understand what you are saying if they do not speak your language.
DO NOT: Wear socks with holes in them. You never know when you may have to take off your shoes. Although many houses, restaurants and buildings in Japan seem modern or Western, others still retain the traditional Japanese style, where tatami mats are laid on the floor. There may be some occasions where you may have to take off your shoes. It certainly is not the end of the world if your socks have a hole (or holes), but if you want to look nice, then follow this advice.
DO NOT: Be surprised to see homeless people. According to the city government, there are almost 5,000 homeless people living in Tokyo. Some non-profit organizations argue the actual number is much higher. Some of Tokyo's homeless, many of them older, often find their spot in Asakusa or along the Sumida River. Once those stores by the temple close up for the day, you may see some homeless people dragging cardboard boxes or blue tarps to make-shift beds for the evening. They are harmless and non-violent.
DO NOT: Walk into a store carrying food or beverages with you. Some stores even have signs in English saying, "No food, no drinks." They do this so customers do not soil or damage the merchandise. Merchants want to keep their sale items in a pristine condition for customers, so be sensible about that. Also, if you plan to purchase a food item, make sure you pay for the product before you open up the package.