Tokyo: a stroll in Yanaka
Where Tokyo seems a different city
Last October I took some friends and relatives to Japan. And our first day in Tokyo started here. It wasn’t what they expected at all. Once we left Nippori station they looked almost disappointed: they pictured in their mind skyscrapers, lights, trains. While in Yanaka there are low houses, little shops, sometimes a bit shabby, old temples and… cats, many of them.
Everything in Tokyo changes fast. But Yanaka seems to change at a much slower pace.
A bit of history
Yanaka hosts many temples, some are very old and important. Most of them were moved here from the city center in the past centuries. Yanaka is also close to the University of Fine Arts and this is why it has a strong connection with artists and writers. This area also suffered limited damage from earthquakes and bombings that destroyed the city in the twentieth century. And this helped preserving its image and atmosphere.
Yanaka is part of a larger area called Yanesen from the names of the three districts that comprise it (Yanaka, Nezu, Sendagi) and is a bit ‘the heart of old Shitamachi, the low city.
Yanaka Ginza is an interesting shopping street close Nippori station (on the norther arch of the Yamanote Line, west of Ueno): it’s the centre of this quiet residential neighborhood.
I don’t really know whether it’s good to start a Tokyo visit from here or if’ it’s better to come here later, to relax a bit from the crowd and bustle of this incredible city. But in a trip to Tokyo, Yanaka is not to be missed.
Why? I am not sure. There isn’t much to do in Yanaka. There are many temples, but not the most famous or spectacular. There is nothing really out of the ordinary, impressive or exceedingly beautigul (apart from the old cemetery, lined with cherry trees, in spring). Visiting Yanaka takes some time. Here I just like to walk. I like to explore the neighborhood wandering slowly, looking at the old shops (butcher, baker, fishmongers …),trying to notice the details. I love it so much that all three times I came here I almost forgot to take pictures. And I suggest you do the same.
Yanaka is also famous for its cats as there is a large cat colony. They are the symbol of the neighborhood and you will find them on t-shirts, sweets, posters and more. At the beginning of Yanaka Ginza (on the right, after the steps) there’s even a quirky shop that sells all sorts of objects related to cats or cat shaped.
The shops, about seventy, are for the most part devoted to the daily purchases of residents. But besides the cat-themed shop you will also find a nice tea shop (at the beginning, on the left), some souvenirs, traditional crafts, food, snacks of all kinds, some small restaurants.
Yanaka Ginza is quite short, less than 150 metres. Once at the T junction at the bottom of the shopping street you can turn left for a famous shops selling manju, a sweet bun prepared with different fillings.
Turning right you will find yourself in front of the little office of Yanesen, an association that runs cultural activities for tourists of various kinds (calligraphy, tea ceremony, guided tours… booking needed). It can also give some information on the area.
If you’re hungry, a little further on the left there is a nice ramen restaurant, Menya Hidamari.
There isn’t just Yanaka Ginza though, and the neighborhood deserves to be explored a bit deeper. The large Yanaka Reien cemetery, is located a short distance from Nippori station (so you’ll have to go back from Yanaka Ginza, follow the signs). It’s an old cemetery that becomes very beautiful in spring thanks to its many cherry trees. Be respectful as you stroll among the ancient tombs (some dating back to the seventeenth century), but this isn’t a gloomy place at all. It’s just beautiful and peaceful.
Yanaka also hosts the big Tennoji temple (the cemetery was originally part of it). But all the area south of the cemetery is worth a walk to discover temples and old houses (there are even some nagaya, the old wooden houses, very rare in Tokyo). Farther southeast, near Nezu Station and not far from Ueno Park, there is a really beautiful temple, the Kaneiji, famous for its azaleas that bloom in spring and for its five-storey pagoda. It’s the only original element dating back to 1652, when the temple was founded.
At this link you will find a nice itinerary in the area (it also mentions an old bath, which is now a gallery).