Tokyo is famous for cutting-edge technology, soaring skyscrapers, perpetually-lit neon streets, and anything else that screams “Modern!” In places like Shibuya, Harajuku, or Akihabara, it can be difficult to remember that the city is hundreds of years old. It’s a shame when travelers leave Japan thinking that Kyoto or the countryside are the only places where traditional life can still be seen while the quiet neighborhood of Yanaka, part of the famous Yanesen area of Tokyo, is waiting.
Yanesen is made up of three neighborhoods, Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi (observant readers may have noticed that the first syllables of their names spell out “Ya-Ne-Sen”). Having mostly avoided natural disasters and incendiary bombs during WWII, it is one of the few areas of Tokyo that has retained much of its original architecture. Yanaka, in particular, is filled with old shops, marketplaces, graveyards, and innumerable temples and shrines.
Just northeast of Ueno Park and next to Nippori Station on the Yamanote Line, Yanaka is as quaint as it is urban. From the quiet side streets around the famous Himalayan Cedar to the bustling market of Yanaka Ginza, then over to the austere temples and serene cemeteries, and down to the avante garde art houses, Yanaka is a vibrant neighborhood with a deep history.
Most of Yanaka’s temples and shrines can be found walking along Sansaki Hill. Heading east from Sendagi Station on the Tokyo Metro, you can enjoy beautiful temples lining both sides of the street as you make your way to the famous Yanaka cemetery. This is one of the largest cemeteries in Japan with more than 7000 gravesites housing famous figures such as Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun, and writer Ichiyo Higuchi, whose face is on the 5000 yen note. There is also the infamous tale of the five-story pagoda that once stood in the cemetery south of Tennoji Temple. Originally built in 1644, it was destroyed by the Great Meguro Fire of 1772. After being rebuilt, the pagoda stood until two lovers burned it down in a suicide pact in 1957. Since then nothing has replaced it, and the original foundations can still be seen from the path.
These days, the cemetery is a popular place for a quiet stroll. In spring, the paths are lined with cherry blossom trees. Tennoji Temple, the oldest temple in Yanaka, is located in the northern area of the cemetery, next to Nippori Station. It is famous for a large statue of Buddha, affectionately known as Tennoji Daibutsu, and for being one of the temples in Yanaka connected to the Seven Gods of Fortune (Tennoji’s specific deity is Bishamonten, the god of fortune in war and battle).
Just north of the temple is Yanaka Ginza. This street is full of traditional shops, sweets, and souvenirs. Practically connected to Nippori Station, it is one of the most accessible attractions of Yanaka. A short walk down the street and through the stalls is guaranteed to reveal many curiosities both for the eyes and tongue!
The “modern” of Yanaka is assuredly not the “modern” of Akihabara. Instead of a tour de force of lights, electronics, and noise, Yanaka is in the masterclass level of the subtle embrace of something new while accentuating the old. This is best displayed in the many art galleries and cafes throughout the neighborhood. Much like the world famous Naoshima, young artists and architects have been turning Yanaka’s old properties into avante garde galleries, community spaces, and cafes.
Perhaps the most famous of these is SCAI the Bathhouse, an exhibition space that was once a… bathhouse (no way!). Within the several blocks around SCAI the Bathhouse, there are more than just a handful of other galleries. Many of the modern cafes that have sprung up are practically galleries in their own right. A good example is Hagiso and its Hagi cafe that is also a community center, art gallery, live house, and performance space–all in a simple two story house.
As with any quaint and self-respecting area in Japan, Yanaka is famous for cats. Not only are there numerous cat-themed cafes and sweet shops, but there is even a gallery called Necomachi (“cat town”) that is exclusively devoted to cat art (if only that meant “art made by cats”!). For any collectors, Yanaka Redhouse Button Gallery or the Daimyo Clock Museum will be right up your alley.
Just around the corner from the clock museum is one of Yanaka’s most famous landmarks, the Himalayan Cedar. Having recently become a centenarian, the Himalayan Cedar is a beloved member of the Yanaka community with its own website (Japanese only) and preservation fund. Located on an unassuming corner of small shops, the tree dominates the view–and practically devours the small shop next to it.
Slow Down and Enjoy Yourself
A vacation in the hustle and bustle of Tokyo can leave you more exhausted than when you started. Yanaka is the perfect escape: a way to step away from the big city without actually leaving it. The old-timey feel of its market and streets are a blessed release. Despite the clock museum, things seem to move a bit slower in Yanaka. A nice afternoon spent in this classic neighborhood is sure to hit the spot.