Walking distance from Ueno Park, Yanaka feels worlds away from the skyscrapers and neon signs that have come to characterize Tokyo. Part of the larger Jansen district, Yanaka was spared from the allied bombings of WWII and the earthquake of 1923, which destroyed the majority of the city. As a result, the neighborhood averted the modernization that took over the rest of the city. Walking down the narrow streets lined with wooden low-rise buildings, temples (there are over 60 Buddhist ones in Yanaka) and small family-run shops, it is easy to feel as though you were removed from fast-paced Tokyo and transplanted in a small town of an earlier era.
For foreigners, many aspects of Japanese daily life and culture can seem concealed from street level. Walking around Yanaka, which has a true neighborhood feel, allows visitors to experience the history of the city in a way that is difficult when in the shopping district of Ginza or amongst the office buildings in the business centers of Marunouchi and Nihonbashi. Here, we recap the must-visits on a walking tour of the neighborhood.
Start your exploration of Yanaka by visiting its central landmark, the Yanaka Cemetery. With more than 7,000 Buddhist graves, it is one of the largest and most picturesque cemeteries in Tokyo. Other than in the springtime, when the hundreds of cherry trees that are dispersed throughout are in blossom, it is one of few places in Tokyo that you can feel completely alone. A fun way to explore the cemetery, and the neighborhood in general as there if very little traffic, is by bike. Tokyo Bike (4-2-39 Yanaka) offers rentals and is walking distance from the cemetery.
For those interested in traditional Japanese crafts, Yanaka is a goldmine. Shoppers should start on the main street Yanaka Ginza, which is an example of the traditional shopping streets that existed in every neighborhood in prewar Tokyo. The pedestrian-only thoroughfare has remained largely unchanged since the early 20th century, and boasts a wide range of stores selling everything from tea to clothing. Make sure to stop by Isetatsu (2-18-9 Yanaka), which was founded in 1864 and sells bright printed chiyogami paper and stationary. Another mainstay, Kikumi Senbei (3-37-16 Sendagi) has been selling some of the best rice crackers in Tokyo since it opened in the late 19th century. Yanaka Matsunoya (3-14-14 Nishi-Nippori), which has been in operation since 1945, partners with local craftsmen to create traditional handmade Japanese products, such as brooms, dustpans and woven storage baskets, that are meant for everyday use. In typical Japanese fashion, the products are designed to be simple and durable, yet aesthetically pleasing.
Due to its low rent and proximity to the Tokyo University of the Arts, Yanaka attracts young, artsy residents who have opened several gallery spaces as well as hip boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops that blend in with the architecture and laidback vibe of the neighborhood. Ueno Sakuragi Atari (2-15-6 Uenosakuragi) is a complex of three renovated wooden homes that now houses a gallery with rotating exhibitions as well as a bakery and craft beer hall. Art enthusiasts should also stop by SCAI the Bathhouse (6-1-23 Yanaka, Taito-Ku), a former Japanese bathhouse that is now one of the best contemporary art galleries in the country, as well as The Asakura Museum of Sculpture (7-18-10 Yanaka), the former home of the famous Japanese sculptor.
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