Tokyo: Exploring the old quarter of Yanaka

Yanaka is one of the loveliest quarters of Tokyo. It is full of old houses, little streets and tiny shops in an old town ambience reminiscent of Tokyo from past decades. Throughout the district, there is an air of nostalgia and a rustic charm.

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This quarter is actually one of a trio of neighbourhoods collectively called Yanesen after their first syllables (Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi). They are part of the shitamachi or old downtown district of Tokyo. Yanaka has a mid-20th-century vibe uncommon in Tokyo, which was largely destroyed twice in the 20th century by earthquake and war.

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Many people just come to visit Yanaka Ginza, a shopping street where you can find different goods and produce, ranging from groceries and necessities to clothes and toys – there are some shops selling simple rice cakes, others specialise in grilled finger food, then there is a Western-style bakery that boasts an oven made with stone from Mount Fuji bakery, next to a stall selling sausages and somewhere in the middle is a teahouse. There’s a shop entirely devoted to items handcrafted from bamboo, a tiny stall where you can get T-shirts custom-printed with illustrations of various animals and a shop that sells traditional wooden and straw-rope sandals.

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During the weekends this part of Yanaka is packed – it seems everyone is eating something or just sitting/standing outside and having a chat with friends.

But if you venture a little away, more into the residential area of the district, it immediately becomes quieter. There are over a hundred temples in the area, some are tiny while others are pretty big – there are too many to visit, I soon gave up after my fifth or sixth temple visit in Yanaka.

Wandering cats seem to be the symbol of the neighbourhood. They just hang out on the streets, around the temples or in the cemetery – I guess people must feed them regularly, that’s why the cats stay in this district. There are several small shops selling cat souvenirs int his area.

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A key attraction is the Yanaka Cemetery, where the locals lay to rest in loving memory those who have passed away. Many of the 7,000 graves are elaborately decorated and the whole cemetery is nicely landscaped.

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In spring the sakura cherry blossom are in season and bring with them lots of visitors, but otherwise the cemetery seems to be quite empty (just a few cats stroll around).

The Sakura-dori Street, which runs through the center of the cemetery, is lined by cherry trees and attracts many visitors every year during the cherry blossom season.

Yanaka Cemetery used to be part of Tennoji Temple, but was separated from it during the Meiji Period. The temple has a peaceful decor and atmosphere, and a big bronze Buddha statue sits on the left of its main building.

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While walking through the streets we discovered Yanaka Coffee – a tiny shop with two benches outside. Inside, you can choose from different roasts and either take it home, or drink a cup of coffee here. We had a cup of ice coffee each and it was so good that we took one for the road along too!

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Yanaka features also a few small museums and galleries – but I have to admit that I have not had time to visit them. They include:

  • SCAI the Bathhouse, a contemporary art gallery opened in 1993 in what had been an over 200-year-old bathhouse
  • The Old Yoshida Sake Store, is a small museum of sorts – housed in a traditional wooden store from early part of the 20th century

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  • The Asakura Museum of Sculpture is the grand former studio and home of sculptor Fumio Asakura (1883-1964), who lived and worked here from 1907. Asakura himself designed much of the building and the landscaped grounds and garden
  • The Daimyo Clock Museum showcases several dozen pre-modern, handcrafted clocks

So as you can see, there is plenty to do – just be mindful that most galleries and museums start closing around 4.30pm and the shops follow around 6pm.

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