Asakusa is one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist destinations, known for the iconic Sensō-ji Temple complex and a network of quaint shopping streets leading up to it. Historically, it was also the center of pre-war cultural modernization, home to many of Japan’s firsts, such as the bar, cinema, amusement park and more.
Underneath this bustling district, only a staircase away from the throng of tourists, hides the oldest surviving subterranean shopping street in Japan: the Asakusa Underground Street.
Established in 1955, the Underground Street is connected to the Asakusa metro station, which itself is part of the oldest subway in Asia. From the ground level, on the other hand, the entrances to the Underground Street are rather inconspicuous and hardly noticeable unless you know where to find them.
But once down here, there’s a whole nother world frozen in time, stuck in the long-past Shōwa era. Straight out of Blade Runner, bare-naked pipes run amok along the low ceiling like the innards of the city, sensually illuminated here and there by the scarlet izakaya lanterns. The floor is always wet for some reason, reflecting the occasional passers-by on its permanent puddles.
Also ever-present and almost iconic is the smell, a mix of cooking steam and bacteria-infested air with a hint of stale tobacco funk, permeating through the passageway due to its poor ventilation. Distinctive, it simply adds to the offbeat ambiance.
Unaffected by the vogue of the world above, the Underground Street accommodates an array of antiquated businesses. There are vendors laying out modest collections of vintage stamps and pornographic DVDs, a couple of old-fashioned barbershops, and a few psychic parlors as well as authentic Vietnamese and Thai eateries, all blending into the chaos of this murky corridor.
The Asakusa Underground Street keeps its slumbery shops open in its rickety time capsule, even as the world above suffers an era of redevelopment and gentrification. It contrasts and contradicts everything that makes Asakusa popular for tourists, perfect for visitors seeking a kitsch, outdated oasis from the crowd—if just for a minute or two.
Know Before You Go
The Underground Street can be accessed 24/7, though the shops may be closed. Other than the two connections from the Ginza Line station, there are two entrances hidden in plain sight: one at the eastern end of the Shin-Nakamise arcade, and another in front of the Matsuya department store.