July 7, 2016

Yanaka's Shitamachi Vibes

Found near Ueno Park, Tokyo's area of Yanaka is one of only a few places to survive World War II. As such, it retains its old school charm.

Yanaka Ginza's famed Yuyake Dandan in central Tokyo

Everyone knows about the climatic end of World War II and the atomic bombs yet only a few are aware of the deadly fire bombings of Tokyo. The plan was orchestrated by Air Force General Curtis LeMay and designed to kill as many Japanese as possible while incinerating the city. A vast area of Tokyo burned to the ground following the incendiary bombings; unlike Kyoto, much of what exists today was constructed during the postwar era.

Nevertheless, there are some areas within Tokyo that miraculously escaped the fire bombings and preserved their historical vibes. One of these areas is the Yanaka neighborhood near Ueno that we will be visiting today. This span of Tokyo has continued to maintain its Shitamachi (lit. “lower city”) vibe and is a stark contrast to the concrete jungle representing much of the city. If you’re seeking a leisurely stroll through the quaint streets of Tokyo from a bygone age then this is just the location for you.

Note: The Yanaka area is also often referred to as "Yanasen." This nickname is a portmanteau of the Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi neighborhoods which collectively form this section of Tokyo. It can be a bit confusing but know that if you see "Yanasen," it means you're in the right place!

—Donny Kimball

Getting to Tokyo’s Yanaka Area

A Yamanote Line train pulls into Nippori Station near Yanaka

The Yanaka area is triangulated by several stations. This means that the best way to get there is dependent on what you’re looking to check out first and also where you’re coming from. For starters, the easiest way to get there will be via JR’s Yamanote Line. Just make your way past Akihabara and Ueno and you will soon find yourself at Nippori Station. Take the West Exit and from there it is just a short walk. Alternatively, if you happen to be located close to a station on the Chiyoda Line, feel free to follow my proposed itinerary in reverse as we will be ending our journey at Nezu Station.

Exploring the Yanaka Ginza Area

Tokyo’s charming Yanaka Ginza area of Yanaka

Most people are vaguely aware of THE GINZA near Tokyo Station that is a Mecca for brand goods. The name Ginza is used by many local municipalities to denote the major shopping streets surrounding the area. We’ll be starting our adventure at Yanaka’s Ginza which can be reached in a few minutes from Nippori Station. Follow this map as the streets can get confusing. Although there is no real “start” point for Yanaka’s Ginza, the above signage bearing its name can be considered a good location to begin your explorations.

The winding alleys in and around Yanaka’s Ginza are perfect for a leisurely stroll. There are a number of independent cafes and restaurants to check out along the way. Be sure to sample a variety of food from the vendors who peddle all forms of temptations along the main street. Unlike with the rest of sterile Tokyo, this is a uniquely Shitamachi vibe from years ago that was long in the reconstruction of the city.

One could spend weeks exploring the rich history of this area. There are a number of small craft shops which have been in business for generations as well as over a hundred small temples. If you’re lucky, you might also make a feline friend without the need to visit one of the city’s cat cafes. Yanaka is famous for its wandering cats and you’ll see this reflected in many of the shops. There’s even a taiyaki shop that creates treats using cat molds instead of the traditional fish mold!

Visit Yanaka’s Peaceful Cemetery

A statue of the Bodhisattva Jizo at Yanaka’s Cemetary

A trip to Yanaka would not be complete without a stop at the expansive grounds of Yanaka Cemetery. The well kept paths through the elaborate tombs makes for a tranquil experience that is rarely found within Tokyo. In spring, the cemetery is particularly breathtaking when the cherry blossom trees lining Sakura-dori Street come into bloom.

On the cemetery grounds you will also find the grave of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the final shogun of the Edo period (1603–1868) who gave up control to the new Meiji government. Should you happen to be a history nerd, you will also encounter the final resting place of a number of other lesser known but equally important individuals. A special point of interest is the temple Tenno-ji which was once part of the original cemetery and features a large bronze Buddha.

Yanaka’s Amazing Nezu Shrine

Nezu Shrine in Tokyo’s Yanaka area

From here, we will be making a short trek to the nearby Nezu Shrine. This shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Tokyo. Legends place its roots as far back as the first century. Nezu shrine is set against a backdrop of lush greenery and has been visited time and time again by famous thinkers such as Natsume Soseki and Ogai Mori who sought a refuge for reflection. The current architecture dates back to 1704 when the shrine was reconstructed and boasts a design similar to that of the Toshogu Shrines.

The shrine has been an important location for both the Tokugawa shoguns as well as the imperial family. The grounds are actually host to a pile of rocks called the Enazuka which contain the afterbirth of the sixth shogun, Tokugawa Ienobu. Furthermore, when Emperor Meiji moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in the late nineteenth century, he sent imperial envoys to the shrine on his behalf due to the importance of the shrine in history.

The multiple torii of Nezu Shrine during the annual azaela festival

Nezu Shrine is also home to an Inari shrine and a series of vermilion Torii gates in the vein of Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. The torii-lined path leads to a an overlook that is part of Otome Inari Shrine (a shrine within a shrine). If you’re not going to make it to Kyoto then this should definitely be on your bucket list. The Shrine is most famous for its Bunkyo Azalea Festival, which happens every April. Over 3,000 Azalea bloom in a variety of colors which makes the aforementioned path of Torii even more breathtaking.

Heading Home from Yanaka

A subway train rushes by a station in Tokyo.

After exploring Nezu Shrine, it’s time to head back. Returning to Nippori Station can be somewhat of a hassle so instead make your way to Nezu Station. Here’s a map to find your way from Nezu Shrine. Alternatively, if you’re still game for more adventure, there are a couple of other venues worth checking out in the area. Here are some suggestions…

  • Kannei-ji
    Once a great sprawling complex with over 30 buildings, most of Kannei-ji was obliterated during the Great Fire of Meireki in 1657. Today’s complex is much smaller but is still worth checking out.
  • Kyu-Iwasaki-tei Gardens
    This is the former estate of the Iwasaki clan who founded Mitsubishi. The premises have three buildings and cover an area of about 17 kilometers. This location is currently open to the public for a small fee of 400 yen.
  • Yushima Tenjin Shrine
    This shrine is dedicated to Tenjin, the Shinto god of learning and is located right by the prestigious Tokyo University. Students looking to pray for success on entrance exams flock here in April every year.
  • Ueno Park
    Ueno Park is a collection of several attractions located on part of what use to be the aforementioned sprawling Kannei-ji complex. The park can be thought of as a microcosm of Japan and makes for the perfect one-day in Japan experience for those without much time.

Until next time travelers…