Touring Yanaka’s Old Quarter

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Photo by Aapo Haapanen

Tokyo isn’t all neon lights and futuristic skyscrapers; in the eastern part of the city, there are several local neighborhoods that survived the Second World War to retain their traditional ‘shitamachi’ or downtown atmosphere. These hidden areas offer a rare glimpse into what life would have been like in early twentieth century Tokyo as well as a chance to escape the 24-hour rush of the modern metropolis.

One of the most popular areas to experience this secret, ‘shitamachi’ side to Tokyo is Yanaka – part of a trio of neighborhoods including Nezu and Sendagi that combine to make the distinctive old quarter known as Yanesen. Tucked away between the two major tourist hubs of Nippori and Ueno Station, Yanaka is often overlooked by visitors to the city. Even the majority of Tokyoites probably haven’t seen it in person, though most will recognize the scenery as Yanaka features in several popular TV dramas; think wistful shots of beautiful actors staring into the sunset – which goes to show just how picturesque it really is.

The rhythm of life in Yanaka is much slower than elsewhere in Tokyo so it’s the perfect place for wandering with food being the only destination in mind (the best kind of wandering). There are lots of traditional shops selling specialist, local food like rice crackers and cat-shaped taiyakai (a pastry filled with adzuki beans) that you can munch on while you meander – a pretty rare treat in Japan as it’s generally seen as rude to eat and walk at the same time.

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You can start exploring from the top of the hill which leads down to the central Yanaka Ginza shopping street. At weekends along the slope before the staircase there’s a group of companionable old men selling old-fashioned children’s toys which they’ll let you have a go at. There’s one guy permanently dressed in an eighties ski jacket who can perform amazing tricks with a spinning top and is usually surrounded by a captivated crowd of kids and adults.

Head towards the staircase from where the famous, Yanaka cats can be spotted lazily overseeing the comings and goings below and, if your timings right, you can get a photo of the sun setting in a blazing orange sky behind the mismatched rooftops.

At the foot of the staircase on your right there’s a shop and café that sells giant choux cream buns and a Persian restaurant where you get to eat on big cushions on the floor. Right before the street begins, if you turn left and walk a couple of meters along the road you’ll find Himitsudo, a café selling ‘kakigori’ or frozen ice that is prepared with a traditional handle-operated ice shaver. Open all year round, their matcha milk flavor is totally worth the prerequisite queue.

Along Yanaka Ginza you’ll find an eclectic mix of shops selling everything from toys, crafts, tea, yakitori (grilled meat sticks) and cat-themed souvenirs; it’s a charming jumble of stores that are generations-old nestled alongside new, hipster set-ups like Jaaku No Hankoya which makes original hanko (name stamps) as well as customized printed t-shirts.

Continuing along the lane there’s the Atom Bakery, an Atom Boy-themed bakery selling western-style baked goods while further down on the right is the Atelier de Florentina, a shop specializing in Florentine cookies. Kanekichien is a welcoming tea wholesalers that offers browsers a free cup of roasted tea, though if you’re looking for something stronger, the store opposite sells beer and amazake during the winter with plastic stools outside from where you
can watch the locals go about their daily business.

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At the end of Yanaka Ginza, turn left and continue to explore the area at your own pace. This section of Yanaka has a reputation for being a bit of an artist’s haven. There are several small art galleries housed in historic buildings as well as dozens of high-quality art shops supplying rare color pigments and handmade tools. One of Tokyo’s premier galleries Scai The Bathhouse was remodeled from a 200 year old traditional bathhouse and is well worth a visit for the building alone.

Heading back in the general direction of Nippori station will lead you to Yanaka cemetery which has more than 7,000 tombstones. There’s a small empty square in the center of the cemetery marked with a plaque where Tokyo’s tallest Edo pagoda once stood. It was burned down by two lovers who committed suicide inside in 1957.

In and around the cemetery you’re bound to stumble upon one of over 100 temples found in the Yanasen area. Along the main road of the cemetery is Kannonji temple which has a small stone pagoda dedicated to the 47 ronin. Tennoji temple complex, close to Nippori station at the top of the cemetery, is more than 500 years old and is presided over by a large, seated bronze Buddha dating back to 1690. During springtime, the peaceful cemetery grounds are filled with lively hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties.

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To access Yanaka and the surrounding area head to Nippori station and take the West exit which is signposted for Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. Go up the slope, you’ll pass Hongyoji temple on your right and a 7/11 on your left. At the crest of the hill, you’ll see a pet-care store called ‘Live Dog’ and from there you should take the right slope to reach Yanaka Ginza.

Being hidden, these areas are, well, pretty hard to find but luckily NTT now has a smartphone app that provides free wifi to tourists, including a special map feature showing you where you can find wifi throughout the city so you’ll never get lost – unless you mean to!

Tokyo-based writer and consultant.

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