The wealth of eccentrically-stocked vending machines and automated ramen shops might make you feel like you have wandered deep into a Japanese cliché, but Taito in Tokyo is full of contrast.
Outside Asakusa station it looks like Taito has nothing more to offer than tangled main roads and muted urban architecture. Start walking through the high-rises and you will find that a small slice of sky above the buildings opens up before you, uninterrupted except for the low, curved roofs of Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. The streets that run between here and Ueno station are dotted with great places to eat, drink and do. Here’s how to experience it like a local.
Ueno boasts some of the best places to buy good quality sushi in Tokyo without having to pay luxury prices. There are many conveyor belt sushi restaurants in the area, but Ooedo (6-13-1, Ueno) is one of the best. It offers a huge selection of fresh nigiri and sashimi such as fried salmon with crispy skin, sesame tuna and clams butterflied open, all at very reasonable prices.
For those who don’t like sushi, but are still keen to have a Japanese-style meal, there are plenty of other options such as Kadokura, (6−13−1, Ueno) next door to Ooedo. The walls of this busy restaurant are covered in plaques detailing the different dishes on offer from the kitchen that day. If that leaves you feeling a little overwhelmed by choice, they also have hand-held menus. Customers can sit at the bar or at one of the more private side booths and enjoy a selection of grilled meat, vegetables and seafood with beer or sake.
Running along the western edge of the garden surrounding Senso-ji temple is a collection of streets filled with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and bars. This is where you can catch a glimpse of salary-men drinking away their day at the office, in bars only big enough to seat seven and where groups of friends in their 20s come to share dinner. Visit Tonpei (2-3-17, Asakusa) and sit elbow to elbow with other customers on long wooden benches and share small plates of edamame, smoky grilled squid and tofu topped with onions and soy sauce.
An Desu Matoba bakery (3-3-2, Asakusa) specialises in traditional sweet bread filled with red bean paste, otherwise known as anpan. For the adventurous, they also have a large selection of other filled donuts, the contents of which can only be discovered by taking a bite, unless you read Japanese. Full disclosure: they can be sweet or savoury and some have curry paste in them.
Next to Asakusa station, Tsukiji Gindaco (1-1-12, Asakusa,1st Bldg) sells steaming-hot Takoyaki. These globes of batter are crackly and golden on the outside, molten on the inside, and filled with chopped octopus. They come in batches of six, generously topped with mayonnaise and crispy bonito flakes.
Shops & Markets
The Asakusa branch of Don Quijote (2-10, Asakusa) is one of Tokyo’s most famous shops. You can easily lose a couple of hours wandering over several floors, each vaguely dedicated to a different theme, but all filled from floor to ceiling with pleasingly incomprehensible products. From green-tea flavoured Kit Kats to Totoro-themed pyjamas, you can find everything you didn’t know you needed, 24 hours a day.
Ameyoko shopping street is actually a vast market. The indoor sections are largely dedicated to clothes and accessories, but the food sold in the streets outside, such as dried squid, barbecued scallops and fresh pineapple kebabs is also worth looking out for.
All of the shops on Kappabashi Street are dedicated to kitchenware, and you can find almost everything you would need for a personal or industrial sized kitchen here. Of interest for domestic chefs are the beautiful tea sets and frankly astounding range of chopsticks.
For more homeware, beauty products and stationary, head to the discount store Daiso, hidden on the top floor of department store ABAB (4−8−4, Ueno).
Parks & Green Spaces
Cherry-red Sensoji, or Asakusa Temple, is surrounded by an elegant park which, although bustling during the day, is calm and peaceful at night. Visit after the crowds disperse to wander through manicured gardens lit by lanterns.
On a sunny day Ueno Park is a great place to take a stroll along tree-lined boulevards, sit around the pond, or take a break in a café and people-watch. Even on weekday mornings the park thrums with families, school kids, street performers and an extremely thorough park cleaning team made up of senior citizens.
Long, thin Sumida Park runs along both sides of the Sumida River. Most of the park is paved, but a large number of trees create a green canopy overhead in summer and provide a peaceful and shady place to go for a stroll and enjoy views of the river. In early spring this is an excellent place to see cherry blossoms in bloom.