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See Skytree for free from the Asakusa Panda Bus
Beat a two-tone track through the tourist jungle on a day out with a difference
What is it with panda-themed transportation? You wait a lifetime for a black-and-white, bamboo-eating ride to come along, then two turn up at once.
From Asakusa, through the maze of backstreets, all the way to the new Skytree complex, this panda goes everywhere you want to be in the city's busiest tourist area -- for free.
No tickets required, no reservations needed; just hop on and hop off, seven days a week. (No pressure to mate in the public eye either, in case you’re wondering.)
Despite the mixture of anticipation and humiliation you might feel in boarding a form of transport with a giant panda head on the front, this is a great sightseeing choice if you have older, younger or very hungover members in your party.
Besides, this is Asakusa -- shitamachi -- and it's all about leaving your uptown sensibilities, and maybe pride, behind.
Everyone is happy to see the Panda Bus. Children grin, tourists gawk, passengers wave back. Pandas just seem to have that effect, even giant, plastic-injection molded versions.
Hit the road
You can start your Panda Bus adventure in front of the stunning new Asakusa Tourist Center, right across the street from the Kaminarimon gate and the entrance to Sensoji Temple.
The eight-story Tourist Center sports English-speaking staff, timetables for the Panda Bus, bathrooms, currency exchange, a coffee shop and views of the Skytree and the temple from the uppermost glass deck.
Information-booth hours are 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, and the Viewing Deck is open until 10 p.m.
Squeeze by the Jinrickshas crowding the street looking for fares and wait at the Panda Bus stop outside.
As soon as you get on you'll notice each seat has a set of panda ears sewn onto the white headrest. No, you may not take them off the bus and wear them. Also, this is not a “guided tour,” but the driver does announce each stop in Japanese.
From Kaminarimon, the bus heads down several busy streets packed with Japanese tourists and boring ordinary tour buses. A round-trip takes about an hour, but there are several stops worth exploring along the way.
At the ROX stop (two after Kaminarimon), you are only a short walk from the Kappabashi restaurant supply district.
This area has so many kitchen-supply stores it could reduce even an Iron Chef to tears of joy. Prices are low and the selection of traditional products massive. Most shops are closed on Sunday, so take care.
The kappa of the area’s name is actually an evil water imp from Japanese mythology.
Though there is a lot of argument over the true origins of Kappabashi, local merchants have adopted the green, vaguely human amphibian as their mascot. It's everywhere and makes for some great photo ops.
More on CNNGo: Kappabashi: Where the super chefs go shopping
Hanayashiki amusement park is like a time trip back to the 1970s and the next stop after Kappabashi. As a flower park, it dates to 1853, the year Commodore Perry's Black Ships sailed to Japan.
There are 20 rides and attractions and general admission is just ¥900 (US$11) . The roller coaster opened here in 1953 and if you climb aboard, you might think the thing has never been maintained since. (It has.)
It's a bumpy ride and the thunk at the bottom of the drop legendary. Don't miss the ancient haunted house -- it's supposed to have an authentic ghost hiding in the shadows.
Hanayashiki is also home to the Panda Car and the reason the Askausa Panda Bus looks the way it does. Check the roof of the bus, you'll see a steering wheel.
Panda Cars are the park’s fuzzy, panda-shaped motor-driven vehicles children (and adults with no shame) can climb on and ride.
Somewhat slow and ponderous, rather like their real counterparts, you feed them ¥100 coins instead of bamboo.
Moving on apace, the bus shifts into high gear for the city's newest and tallest landmark -- the 634-meter-tall Tokyo Skytree.
The tower's huge entertainment complex is designed to be a daylong destination even if you’re not planning on tackling the attention-seeking erection.
Which is a good thing, as tickets to the first viewing platform are pretty much sold out until July 10. (From July 11, they will be on sale at the fourth-floor ticket counter.)
Skytree Town houses a large aquarium, planetarium, shopping and dining choices from deluxe to cheap and cheerful.
Should you get a chance to ride to the viewing platform, check out your elevator. Each is decorated by well-known craftsmen with a different Japanese-inspired seasonal theme.
Sumida river cruise
If slow-paced river cruises are more your thing, get off at the next stop. The glassed-in ticket office for the popular Suijo Bus boat trips up and down the Sumida River is just across the street.
After you've seen everything you want to see in Asakusa, this is a good place to wave a fond farewell to the Panda Bus and buy a one-way boat ticket to Hamarikyu Detached Garden or Hinode Pier (from ¥720) and catch a train onward from there.
Sumida cruises depart twice an hour most days. If your schedule allows it, avoid Sunday when the line for boats resembles something from Disneyland.
End of the line
Back on the bus, the next stop is Kaminarimon and the Tourist Center, full circle from where you began your black-and-white adventure.
The Panda Bus website is in Japanese only (unless you count the next-to-useless machine translations on offer), but the timetable is easy to decipher.
The bus comes once every 50 minutes and adheres pretty closely to the schedule. The entire circle route, therefore, takes just under an hour.
Oh, the driver breaks for lunch from 1 p.m.-2 p.m., so no bus then. A man’s got to have his bamboo-shoot bento, after all.
The first bus leaves Kaminarimon at 10:18 a.m, the last bus just before 5 p.m. There is no charge and no tickets are required.
The bus holds around 25 people, but extra seats fold out into the aisle for when it's really crowded. When that happens, there's a lot of shuffling and “excuse mes” as people shift on and off.
The Panda Bus has a sister service running by Ueno Zoo, which is home to Japan's giant pandas Li Li (or Ri Ri depending on who's translating) and Shin Shin.
For this line, since most of the attractions for tourists, including the pandas, are centrally located right in Ueno Park, it's hard to come up with a bus-worthy itinerary.
Unless, of course, you just really, really like bigheaded panda buses. In which case, be our guest.
More on CNNGo: Tokyo Skytree open for business